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Series


Ok, so this is really and truly my last look at Avatar: The Last Airbender for DVDActive. I’ve decided to forgo my previous rout of synapsing and reviewing each individual episode. I don’t know why I started doing that. I suppose I just felt I’d said everything there was to say on the show as a whole in my first season two review, but the practice is exhausting, for me to write and for poor Chris to edit. This review section is going to be a scorecard for the entire series run.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection

Animation


Avatar is obviously based on the basics of Japanese animation. This includes the character designs with their giant eyes, the camera placement, and various uses of ‘face fault’ and ‘super deformed’ animation to express comedy. Some older viewers are turned off by the physical humour, and dependency on techniques like sweat drops, sleep bubbles, blushes, overhead ellipsis, shrunken pupils, and any other number of Manga based emotive techniques, but I’d argue that when the emotion counts the creators default to a more realistic look.

Avatar tends to use its budget to the nth degree, and the directors know when to save a few bucks using still frame pans and the like. Usually problem shots are delegated to an area of an episode that can stand them, but occasionally the non-theatrical budget shows its stitches. It’s an unfortunate fact that without limited supplies of cash an animated series will always feature less then perfect moments, fortunately, in the case of Avatar these shortcomings are usually smoothed over by grand storytelling.

One of the grandest and most understated achievements of the series is the creator’s insistence on developing personal relationships with the Korean animators, who are normally treated like factory machinery. According to the commentary tracks this simple human contact brought out so much pride in the animators that they ended up working after hours, and on their personal time.

The theatricality and scale of the series really grew over time to the striking degree of the final season, but from the beginning the creators were sure to infuse as much live action influence into the animation as possible. Among the cracks of visual homage to Miyazaki and Otomo, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko pack shots from the best John Woo, Akira Kurosawa, and Steven Spielberg films. The scope and scale is breathtaking for American based television animation, only occasionally coming second to the near perfection of Bruce Timm’s Justice League. And to that token the final season of the show utilized the talents of one of Justice Leagues strongest action directors, Joaquim dos Santos.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection

Writing


Though the show’s design, acting, and animation are all important to its success, it’s the writing that remains paramount. The overall arc of the story is very traditional, almost cliché in its plotting. Like all classic and modern versions of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, the audience knows how the story is going to end, and the challenge in dealing with classic storytelling is in keeping the audience interested. Quite often Avatar sets up a long standing trope, then inverses it at the last minute. In almost every case the trope ends up finding its way back into the mix, and the cliché is appeased, but the trickery ensures bated breath, and a return for the next episode.

The characters are archetypes more or less across the board, but I don’t see this as a screenwriting short cut, I see it as a framing device. The top list cast fulfills every inch of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ trope, but as in the plot points and devices the tropes are presented as a means to an end in a creative storytelling manner. Given the epic serialization of this particular tale, it’s only after the audience is comfortable with the stereotypes are the writers free to riff on the material, and in turn, their characters.

For example, the character Sokka is presented initially as a straight man to Aang’s clown. Sokka is goal oriented, protective, the premature adult, and the cynic. He’s forced on his journey against his better judgment (he’s Han Solo). However, around the middle of the first season, when Aang and Katara begin taking more responsibility, he becomes the clown, a mantel which he rides well into the third season. At the same time he doesn’t fully lose the mantel of straight man, and he definitely doesn’t stop being a protective, goal oriented premature adult.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection
When one looks at every episode from front to back a pattern emerges. Almost every single act break and final shot ends on a cliff hanger. It would seem very easy to invoke a tired reaction from an audience with this predictable structure, but when done right such a pattern can prove irresistible. Just look at the ever lasting popularity of daytime soap operas. The question isn’t the effectiveness of the stories’ addictive nature, it’s in the integrity of the titillation. I think the writers and creators have a great story to tell, and I think they utilize serial clichés to tell it in a palatable manner, but the argument could be made against the practice.

Acting


Another relatively innovative feature of the series is the employment of children as actors. For a while now most child characters in television animation have been voiced by women, because their voices aren’t likely to change with age, and they’re usually easier to work with. Since the premier of Avatar I’ve noticed a lot more new animated series using child actors, likely because these kids were so good. One can really appreciate how talented the child actors are when watching interviews or listening to commentary tracks, namely because they obviously aren’t their characters in real life.

The quality and notoriety of the adult actors was pretty paramount from the beginning, including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, Clancy Brown, and Dante Brasco (who plays a kid, but is an adult), and later Wayne Duval, Robert Patrick, and Joe Polito. The cast never quite got as star packed as Batman or Justice League, but the quality was never in question. The show’s final secret weapon is casting and voice director Andrea Romano. Romano may be the single most underappreciated person in modern television, responsible for much of the casting and voice direction of the highest caliber animation of my lifetime. Her credits include Batman the Animated Series (and every subsequent DC Animation series and spin off), Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, The Boondocks, and Ben 10. Romano deserves as much credit as the writers and actors for the density and realism of these characters.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection

Video


Unlike Justice League and The Boondocks, Avatar hasn’t been animated with the widescreen in mind, and doesn’t really work when re-framed. The scope and scale of the final four episodes really lends itself to a bigger canvas, but that isn’t going to happen without losing a lot of real estate. Some of the final battle footage in the final episodes is so gigantic in scale that the animation’s detail is lost even on a big screen, but there just isn’t anything we can do about it right now. The final season looked about as good as standard definition television animation can be expected to look, but there were some errors peppered throughout the first two seasons. If this M. Night Shyamalan movie series really does happen I think we can expect a re-release, and possibly this time in high definition, but the 1.33 framing will still be an unavoidable issue.

Feel free to check out my half dozen other Avatar reviews for more specific details on the DVDs’ video quality ups and down.

Audio


I neglected to really compliment the live orchestral scoring that accompanied the final four episodes of the series in my last disc review, and I’d like to rectify that now. Jeremy Zuckerman’s series music has always been large, original, and theatrical, but the budget constraints really began to show in the last season as cues were regularly recycled. The turn the music took in the final episodes was actually a huge surprise. Most would assume that given the time and money, and given the increased scale of the episodes one might assume Zuckerman would go bigger, but the final score is filled with creepy dissonance, scathing strings, and deeply melancholy new themes.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection
The most poignant moment of entire series came in the end as royal siblings Zuko and Azula face off in an epic fire fight. Even as a staunch, almost blindly positive supporter of the series, I was shocked at the treatment of the scene, which juxtaposes the beautiful slow motion violence with one of the saddest pieces of string music I’ve ever heard. Avatar is an emotional series, and I’ve found myself a little choked up a few times (shut up), but this particular collage of image and sound speaks without words more incredibly than most major filmmakers can imagine. The scene could practically be used as a visual definition of the pure film theory of movie making.

Again, if you want to know more about the audio quality of these DVDs check out my older reviews. There should be links at the end of the review.

Extras


Discs one through four are identical to the original single disc release, including all those commentary tracks. The fifth disc is where the producers earn a proper finger waving. The single disc release featured commentary tracks on the first three episodes, but not the final four episodes, which are frankly the four fans would want to hear about (I complained a little in my review). This new release is exactly the same except for full commentary on the final four episodes with creators DiMartino and Konietzko. The track is in keeping with every other Avatar creator commentary, especially the ones featuring only the creators—it’s good natured and informative, but a little lethargic.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection
In my review of the final disc I said this about the Lion Turtle sequence, where Aang learns how to take away the Fire Lord’s power without killing him:

‘This section has drawn the most critical ire, and with good reason. It’s a total Deus Ex Machina moment, but it’s  such a Deus Ex Machina moment that I’m suspecting it was the point. The Lion Turtle is basically a god, and it is by his hand (literally) that Aang learns to energy bend. So much of  Avatar is about dealing with tropes, clichés and myth that such a direct use of a classical mythic trope simply has to be pointed. If I’m wrong, and I’m simply defending a big mistake on the part of the writers, I apologize to every single detractor.’

Well, I owe at least a partial apology because DiMartino and Konietzko never really address the Deus Ex Machina, or the fact that the plot point does weaken the finale. What they do establish is that like everything in the series, the sequence is based on classic, nearly ancient literature, and classic stories and myth often use the Deus Ex Machina device. The ‘weak’ plot point is sort of explained away, but the issue is never directly addressed, so I have to use my imagination, which is often a sign of fanboy blind eyeing.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection
The exclusive bonus disc is comparable to the minor discs that accompanied the other two season collections, containing a small amount of still intriguing extras. Things begin with ‘The Women of Avatar’, a nearly twenty minute, sort of fluffy featurette concerning the three main female characters from the series, featuring episode footage, cast and crew interviews, and words with a few fans. Next crudely drawn caricatures of DiMartino and Konietzko introduce us to eleven minutes of pencil test animation (which are the basis for the final animation, minus in-betweens, ink, and final colour) from the final episode. The extras come to a close with footage from the 2007 Comic Con panel concerning the final season. This kind of rabid screaming fandom kind of freaks me out, so despite some interesting factoids, some fun live action reference footage (Konietzko is a pretty gifted physical comedian), and possibly one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen, I found these thirty seven minutes pretty uncomfortable.
Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 Collection

Overall


Congrats to all the talented people that brought Avatar: The Last Airbender to life for the last three years. I could watch hundreds more episodes if the quality remained this consistent, but I appreciate the story coming to an end at its highest point, and would hate to have seen the whole thing devolve into the mediocrity of so many long running shows. Fans who already own all four single discs from the third season should only update with this new release if they’re really excited about the commentaries, and possibly for the Comic-Con footage.


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