Avatar The Last Airbender: Book 2 Vl.3 (US - DVD R1)
More Airbending for Gabe means more fan-boy gushing for Gabe's readers...
I already had a chance to gush like a misbitten cherry tomato about Avatar: The Last Airbender when I reviewed the first disc of season two right here. I won't bore you by reiterating all that, instead I'll pick up where I left off and do an episode by episode synopsis and critique.
The previous episode ends with Aang's giant, flying pet Appa getting bison-napped by a gang of sandbenders. Aang's anger and frustration bubbles over and he becomes a nihilistic mess as the gang is forced to walk across the desert to the Earth Nation capital of Ba Sing Se. Meanwhile, Fire Nation outcasts Iroh and Zuko face Fire Nation and bounty hunters, and find a secret society that will help them hide from capture.
The Desert is a surprisingly melancholy episode for a children's series, but it sets the tone for the remainder of the season, which follows the second act downer president set by The Empire Strikes Back. To keep things from getting too dark the writers feed team leader Sokka and team mascot Momo cactus juice with psychedelic properties. The drug addled duo hallucinates their way through the episode, and their plight is genuinely amusing.
The B-story featuring Iroh and Zuko is nice because it continues to unravel Iroh's back story, and pushes Zuko along his 'destined to be a hero' path. The two decide to travel to Ba Sing Se because they'll be able to blend with the other refugees, which puts the self-obsessed, silver spooned Zuko in his place. Again, as I said in my disc one review, Zuko really is the show's most interesting character, and his reverse Anakin Skywalker arc isn't original, but brilliantly played.
The episodes crowning moment of base level, gut reaction comes at the end when Aang begins to enter his super-powerful 'Avatar State'. In the state he could easily kill everyone around him, and realizing what's happening the newly sobered Sokka quickly tries to move enemies and allies alike to higher ground. But group den mother Katara takes a chance and goes to Aang, taking his hand, and holding him until he's able to finally cry.
The Serpent's Pass
After leaving the desert, the group meets up with Sokka's long lost love interest Suki, and attempt to lead an expecting couple over the dangerous Serpent's Pass. Zuko and Iroh make it aboard the ferry to Ba Sing Se team Avatar missed, and meet up with Jet and his Freedom Fighters. Jet and Zuko hit it off.
After almost decimating a group of sandbenders in his Avatar State, Aang decides to repress his pain and focus on his journey to Ba Sing Se. This is another emotionally affecting episode, as Katara desperately tries to draw Aang's sorrow out. Sokka, meanwhile, has a chance to be more than comic relief, and shares some moving scenes with Suki, though he cannot commit to her for fear of losing her like the last girl he fell for. We also catch a glimpse of what might be genuine jealousy from grumpy earthbender Toph.
Jet's reintroduction to the series is a nice move. During season one, the young, Robin Hood like Freedom Fighter and his Peter Pan inspired Lost Boys were willing to destroy an entire town of innocents to get revenge on the Fire Nation for killing their parents. After Sokka foiled his plans, it seems he's had a change of heart, which balances nicely with the recently challenged Zuko. The fact that this relationship ends tragically is just another in a long line of barriers the writers stick in 'good' Zuko's way.
The Serpent's Pass has a central action scene that really brings the house down, as Aang an Katara bend the water around a sea monster to keep the couple and their unborn baby safe. Overall, action is a little light on this particular disc, but it's the emotional arcs that do and should take president at this point. I'm happy the creators don't feel the need to cram unnecessary fighting into such an adult and satisfying story.
As Aang leaves with Momo to find Appa, he catches a glimpse of a Fire Nation super weapon heading straight for wall of Ba Sing Se. He puts his Appa quest off for the time being, and the gang goes to work finding a way to stop the juggernaut. Meanwhile, Jet tries to recruit Zuko for his Freedom Fighters, but accidentally learns his secret when Uncle Iroh warms his tea without a visible source of heat.
The Drill is the most action heavy episode on the disc. We get a taste of some large scale battle action, and some hard fought one-on-ones. Zuko's sister Azula gets her first real shot at Aang, and for all intents and purposes wins the fight, proving she's no pushover. Azula's companions Ty Lee and Mai also get a fair share of character development. Though I suppose they are villains, it's nice to see a kids show with such physically powerful female characters.
The Zuko/Jet B-story doesn't get too far, but foreshadows the following episode confrontation. All in all this is a weaker episode plot-wise, though it still stands strong in action. The characters are really just moving from point A to point B at this point. I still respect the show for it's deliberate pacing, but I'm happy it never devolves into Dragon Ball Z action territory, where nothing happens plot-wise for several episodes during an action sequence.
City of Walls and Secrets
After quelling the Fire Nation attack, Aang and his friends finally arrive in the Earth Kingdom's capital, Ba Sing Se, to inform the Earth King about the coming eclipse. They are stopped cold by mysterious and dangerous bureaucratic forces within the city. Meanwhile, Jet tries to prove that Zuko and Iroh are actually firebenders.
This is the darkest episode in the season up to the point it aired, and is the first step in very Empire Strikes Back based season finale. In case you missed it, Ba Sing Se equals Cloud City, even though there isn't Lando character in sight. The episode has its share of humour, mostly revolving around Aang and Soka's attempts to enter a party in honour of the King's new bear, but turns really ugly in the end.
Jet's confrontation of Iroh and Zuko leads to one of the better hand to hand moments in the season, as Zuko confronts him without relying on his firebending powers. Jet's subsequent arrest ends the episode on a horrifyingly Orwellian note, and the real truth of the peaceful city of Ba Sing Se is revealed to our heroes in the form of a new villain, the head of the Dai Le, Long Feng. Feng is voiced by Clancy Brown, whose version of Lex Luthor on the Timm/Dini Superman and Justice League series is my personal favourite. Obviously he was a favourite of the series creators as well, because he basically plays the same character here.
The Tales of Ba Sing Se
A day in the life of the characters as they wander Ba Sing Se includes: Katara and Toph on a girls' day out, Iroh helping townsfolk, Aang building a new zoo, Sokka accidentally entering a poetry club, Zuko's first date, and Momo looking for Appa.
Tales of Ba Sing Se is probably the best episode of the season, possible the entire show. The anthology approach is much more effective than one would expect from such a plot driven series. These shorts don't stand on their own for those that don't know the characters, but as additions to characters they're wonderful. Two of the shorts even brought a lump into my throat.
Katara and Toph's day out serves to fill out Toph, not Katara, who's probably the second most developed character already, next to Aang. The problem is that Toph already had a huge character arc when she agreed to assist Aang's team. Aang's zoo episode is a nice showcase of the show's universe, and probably the most entertaining for the kiddies in the audience. Sokka's episode is kind of a play on the rap battles of 8 Mile, only using Haiku, and is the funniest of the shorts.
The three best are the most blatantly emotional. All three skate the edge of total sap, but the strong characters manage to come across as honest rather than manipulative. Zuko's date is the one event in the episode that is key to the rest of the season. By accepting his romantic feelings towards another person he takes a huge step in confronting his destiny. The episode features some very genuine teenage dialogue, and ends on a touching admittance on Zuko's part. Momo's search for Appa is actually pretty manipulative, I admit, but it got me. The episode successfully mixes physical comedy and bittersweet levity without any words being spoken. It's the kind of thing animation does better than live action.
Iroh's episode is the most touching because of the real life death of actor Mako, who voices the character. Iroh's always been a warm, grandfatherly character, but here he gets to work his magic outside the main cast. What starts out amusing ends crushingly sad as the aging warrior sings a song to his son who fell in the war. The gentle warrior begins to softly weep, the screen freezes into a water colour painting, and the words ‘In honour of Mako’ fade in. Truly sad.
This disc is four fifths satisfying, as all but one episode appears to be progressive, and are a great improvement over season one. There are a few minor noise issues, specifically with Fire Nation red again, but the overall look is much smoother than previous releases. Colours are bright and blend well with only occasional edge enhancement, and black levels are very deep. Then theirs that other fifth, The Serpents Pass. This one episode is a depressing flashback to everything that was wrong with the season one release. There's major edge enhancement, the colours are muddy, blacks are not truly black, noise is everywhere, and the whole thing is blatantly interlaced. Four out of Five isn't awful, but how did this happen?
Like the other discs in the series, this one isn't particularly amazing, but features no obvious errors. Again, I'd love this to be mixed into 5.1, the show lends itself to surround very well, but the 2.0 will have to do. Everything could do with a bit of bassing up, and I'd love to hear the surround channels come to life more often than they do. Stereo effects work, and dialogue is pretty well centred, but only music seems to find its way into the back speakers with any real power.
Most fans might want to wait for the season two collection releases, as it will contain an additional disc of all extra features, just like last year's season one collection. This single disc collection features only two commentary tracks, which is minimal, but better than most releases in the single disc series. Series writers and creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are joined by background designer Elsa Garagarza, and co-writer Joshua Hamilton on separate episodes ( City of Walls and Secrets and The Serpent's Pass, respectively).
The creators rule over the commentaries, but occasionally remember to demand some input from their friends. The tracks are a little thin, but have a decent amount of behind the scenes chat, and our commentators are sure to make sure we're in on some of the in-jokes and Easter eggs. The disc also has a series of trailers for other Nick cartoon series, and a tiny comic book.
Again, a fine collection of cartoons, but not a good place to start. Avatar: The Last Airbender really is one of the best television shows on television right now, animated or otherwise, and it deserves every single one of its accolades. This disc has one very poorly presented episode, but the price is right. Fans might want to wait for the collection release this fall.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 22nd May 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish, Dolby Digital 2.0 French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Creator Commentary, Comic Book
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Cast: Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Jessie Flower, Dante Basco, Mako
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation and Comedy
Length: 123 minutes
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