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Aang is the last Airbender, and the next Avatar. The Avatar is a reincarnated master of all four elements (air, water, fire, and earth, think of him as a Dali Lama/Jedi Knight/Captain Planet hybrid), destine to uphold peace on earth. 100 years ago, the peace was shattered when the Fire Nation attacked and proceeded to conquer the majority of the world. Aang was accidentally frozen in a block of ice for 100 years, unable to stop the Fire Nation's onslaught.

While fishing in the South Pole, young Sokka and Katara of the Water Tribe find Aang, and accidentally free him from his icy prison. After learning of his fate, the two agree to travel with Aang, and his flying, six legged bison Appa, around the globe in search of powerful Earth, Water, and Fire ‘Benders’ that will teach Aang the skills he'll need to defeat the mighty Fire Lord.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
(Season One spoilers below)
Season one saw the gang pursued by Prince Zuko, son of the Fire Lord, and his advisor/uncle Iroh, both exiled from the Fire Nation until the day they capture the Avatar. Soon, the trio also gained the attention of General Zhao, and the season ended with Aang defeating Zhao's armada. Aang saved the Northern Water Tribe, and he and Katara were both certified as master Water Benders. Zuko, was disgraced in the process, and his evil sister sent to 'fix' his mistakes.
(End spoilers)

There's nothing quite like reviewing the first five episodes of the middle chapter of one’s current favourite television series. I should remain objective, and critique the disc's five episodes on their own merits, but alas, I've got to gush a bit.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is probably the best kids show to come along since Justice League and Samurai Jack. Animation is becoming more and more adult oriented recently, leaving a sizeable schism between it and the subject matter aimed at toddlers. Teens are losing interest in cartoons in favour of MTV, prime-time soaps, and burnt out reality show contests. My parents watch shows like The Closer, CSI, and The West Wing, shows that remind them of the '80s prime-time 'classics' like L.A. Law. Me and my generation? We're spread between, but some of us still hold on to our beloved cartoons, making adult oriented animation like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and all those bizarre Adult Swim franchises so very popular.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
There isn't much out there that appeals to anyone in any age group. My oft mentioned favourite Bruce Timm DC Comics work ( Batman, Superman, Justice League) is all tame enough to be considered children's entertainment, but really belongs on prime-time, where intelligent adult viewers can appreciate its humour and emotional depth. Unfortunately, most grown-ups aren't willing to watch a hand drawn series based on spandex wearing superhero antics. This is what makes Avatar so special, it appeals to a wide spectrum of age groups and personality types.

Without dumbing down its characters, plots, or humour, and without overtly taming-up the action or peril, Avatar manages to enthral children and adults, ages 4 to 56 (I know, my father and half brother watch it together, and actually talk to me about it when I call). There is a genuine classic feel to the series, which uses actual Asian history and lore as its base. Like Star Wars, the creative forces behind the show have tapped into that basic, generation spanning storytelling that will live long after the series' youngest fans are old and bitter.

I think the Star Wars comparison is an important one. The basic story and characters are so classically sculpted that I have no doubt that the creators are, like George Lucas, students of the indispensable Joseph Campbell. This is a valiant attempt at a modern myth, and though not as layered and expertly constructed as J.R.R. Tolkien's (or even Lucas'), Avatar marks a great starting point for children, without boring or insulting an adult intellect. This probably has something to do with the fact that corporations and cartoon makers tend to underestimate the basic intelligence and attention span of a child. The difference between Lucas and the Avatar creators is the 'Westernisation' of the Eastern mythos and styles.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
The animation is similar to the Japanese Anime style that's become so popular in the Western World over the last few decades. Usually Western representations of Japanese animation have been dismal at best, and the original promos for the series made it look awfully trite. The character designs aren't (wisely) as over-the-top as those of other popular Animé series like Pokemon or Dragonball Z (which I shamefully admit I watch), they have more of a reality-based look, like the work of genre greats Hayao Miyazaki, and Katsuhiro Ôtomo. The story, and inclusion and design of animal characters, is very Miyazaki influenced, but the action owes more to recent Animé like Cowboy Bebop, which unlike older Animé series bases its fights on actual martial arts and human movement.

But beautiful animation and epic stories are easy, it's comedy that's hard. If anyone can prove this it's George Lucas. Humour is so subjective that when comedy fails, it falls harder, faster, and more violently than anything. The joy of a mythic plot, melodrama, and well executed action are all well burned into the greater human psyche, and most of us can agree when these elements come together correctly. What amazes me about Avatar is how funny it is.

Again, like the plot, most of the humour isn't dumbed down for children. Some of it (okay, a lot of it) is of a slapstick nature, and certain characters get bridled with the brunt of the jokes, but what often makes a joke play is its straight man, not its comedian. Sokka is a mix of comic relief and straight man, and the audiences window to the world. This can make for an awful character in the wrong hands (cough, cough, Jar Jar Binks, cough), but Sokka is a brilliant strategist and an important member of the team. The combination works, and the situation derived humour (usually) works too. Though, hiring some of the writers of Futurama probably helps.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
The show does hit a sort of middle ground, which will turn some adult viewers off. There are times where even I, a fan, feel a situation should be carried further than it has, into even darker places. The second season, which starts here with this disc, takes a cue from pretty much every other successful middle chapter to a trilogy. The season finale was a veritable cornucopia of Empire Strikes Back references. It appears that perhaps things will continue to get darker.

(Again, season one spoilers)
Season one ended with Aang entering the nearly invincible 'Avatar' state and single handedly destroying Admiral Zhao (voiced with gusto by the always perfectly evil Jason Isaacs) armada. The first episode of the second season sees Aang and his friends back on their journey, and though arcs are still to be had, it is the first season's chief villain, Zuko that rules season two.
(End spoilers)

Because they are considered traitors of the Fire Nation, Zuko and Iroh (voiced by Japanese actor Mako, who tragically died last year) are forced to live amongst the Earth Nation peasants they've looked down upon and slaughtered for years. One assumes Iroh is content to just go with the flow, but Zuko has a slow and painful (literally) change of heart. His place in the tale is the most interesting.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
The episodes on this disc represent the series easy pacing. Not a whole lot of plot is covered in these five episodes, but the story still moves. This isn't a very good place for new viewers to start, as there's almost no recap of season one, just a series of images and sound bites that don't play at all out of context, and the story is designed to be seen from the beginning. The physical and emotional changes the characters undergo are a lot more natural and dramatic when one doesn't start mid-change. Another thing that makes Avatar superior to lesser series is a master plan. There is a three-act structure to the series, and it will end next year. This prevents the meandering and listless plotlines of popular Animé like Dragonball Z and Inuyasha.

Video


Season one's release was pretty ugly so far as the DVDs' presentations. Early episodes were especially infected with resolution issues, interlaced combing effects, and really blatant edge enhancement (which in the case of an animated show is an inescapably distracting problem). Paramount aims these DVDs at kids, and probably assumes that cutting corners on compression and mastering isn't going to be a problem. A rerun watching of the episodes on television reveals that the first two or three episodes aired in a rather afflicted state, but later episodes actually look better on cable TV than DVD.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1
This, the first disc of season two, looks better than the bulk of season one, but still has some issues. Bright reds (the Fire Nation's theme colour) have major noise issues, and are the disc's lead affliction. The edge enhancement is still there, but much less obvious, and easily ignored in most instances. The image's overall sharpness varies throughout, but remains passable for the most part. The transfer is a mixed bag, but colourful, and clean enough to earn it a slightly above average grade.

Audio


Avatar has a score that's much bigger than its budget. The show's composers borrow some cues here and there, but it's all usually pretty pitch perfect. The sound design, which includes the sounds made by the universes many varied animals (usually a mix of two real world animals), also adds a layer of class to the series.

This Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation is fine, but nothing amazing. There are a few cool surround  and stereo effects, but mostly the back channels are used for music and ambiance. Bass is lacking for the most part, and the absence of a discreet LFE channel means simply turning up the bass will create a bit of warbling. It's best left alone.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl. 1

Extras


Not much here, but the uncut, episode length animatic is pretty cool. This is a moving storyboard for the first episode on the disc. Production and technology-based extras can all be found on previous releases of the series, and the season one box set has an extra discs featuring a pilot and Korean animation documentary. I guess the DVD producers didn't see the need for more in depth stuff here. Some more commentaries would be nice, and I'm hoping some of the upcoming season two discs will house them.

Also included in the box is a mini comic adventure. It isn't exactly thick in plot or anything, but it's cute, and will probably help make a couple of young ones actually read.

Overall


[i]Avatar: The Last Airbender[/h] is a great series, the kind that the whole family really can enjoy, an often cited, but rarely true assertion. Though this disc houses five quality episodes, it's not a good place for those unfamiliar with the series to begin. I recommend either buying or renting the series from the beginning, or simply catching the episodes in rerun on any of the Nickelodeon networks. They seem to run them all weekend long these days. My personal rule of thumb is to give a half hour format TV series 3-4 episodes, and an hour format series 2-3 episodes before I decide to proceed or not.


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