Saturday, April 7, 2012

When Air gave way to Water

I had just turned 19 when Nickelodeon aired Avatar the Last Airbender. I had, of course, been used to the Nick line up, which consisted of great shows such as Rugrats, Doug, Hey Arnold, and the still great Spongebob! However, while watching the promo for this new series I was struck by how different it seemed. The animation was far more fluid, greatly influenced by the animation style of Japanese anime, and the characters seemed vastly layered. All this was taken from a minute plus promo that ran between shows. So I thought I would give it a shot, and when February 21st rolled around I sat on my couch expecting a fun action show, but not much more. And for the series premier I would have been right, if it wasn't for one character who stood out in my mind; Zuko. He was a lot like Dragonball's Vegeta, and not just because he was a prince. There was clearly more driving him than just ambition or power. There was a hunger he possessed that coursed through his very essence (a hunger that we learn more about as the show progressed), and he was voiced so well. So he was the hook, and I could not let the show go, and though it was Zuko who initially got to me, the show's growth over the seasons as well as the development of other characters such as Toph, Iroh and Sokka came to compliment Zuko nicely. In those early episodes, Zuko was a harbinger of the tone and maturity to come from this “kids” show. So when it ended in 2008, it was a little tough to let it go, like when I was a witness to Jedi for the first time, or traveled through the last pages of Deathly Hallows. But when the dynamic duo of Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko announced The Legend of Korra series, I was very excited, eagerly anticipating the next chapter in the Avatar world. That announcement was in 2010. It has been a long wait.

The first thing that struck me while watching the early access premier on my computer was just how great the animation looked. Airbender was no slouch, but the animators have stepped up their game quite a notch since 2008. It’s very fluid; the characters move gracefully, animal interaction and movement is very natural, and even the way buildings appear in the distance while cars roll around on the streets with the hustle and bustle of people going their separate ways is very organic. The one scene that sticks out to me even a week after watching the show was when Korra is heading to the big city, and she’s stole away on a boat with her animal guide Naga. She is lying against the dog/bear with a look of content at what she has just accomplished, while having the look of wonder in her eyes of what’s to come. I felt great for her just from this simple look on her face. It didn’t last more than 20 seconds, but this scene is so elegant in its subtlety, that with all the beautifully crafted acrobats throughout the rest of the show, this scene was perfect. The other big standout part for me was how confident and sexy Korra was portrayed without being sexualized. Usually with Japanese anime, the few strong female leads are overly sexualized, with big curves, long legs, and skimpy clothes making them look like hookers. Not so here (though Korra does have some great curves!). Korra's appeal doesn't come just from her good looks or grace (though outside of battle she is lacking in the grace department), but from her confidence in her abilities and who she is as a person. She doesn’t seem like the character who would wear low cut shirts to distract guys in order to get her way. In fact, if she were to do something like that, it would feel very out of character. She is someone who has such self confidence, who has a great awareness of who she is that there is no need for her to strut her stuff, and that's why when she inevitably fails, it’s going to be a tough moment to witness. Being humbled always sucks, and more so when you're the Avatar, just ask her predecessor Aang.

Avatar Korra and Aang's first meeting
Aang struggled with who he was, and the responsibilities he faced. Largely this is because facing your mortality while having the weight of the world on your shoulders at the age of 12 is an incredibly daunting task. Trust me, I'm 26, it's no easier, and I don't have a world to save. So Aang did what any rational child would do, he ran. It took him two and a half seasons to finally be ready to face his challenges, and still it was an incredibly difficult task he almost lost. However, from the get go, Korra knows who she is, and she wants the whole world to know too; just look at her introduction. When we first meet Korra, she's a spunky 4 year old with some degree of control over 3 of the 4 elements who is being investigated by members of the White Lotus for claims of her being the Avatar. Her parent’s home is very humble, with traditional water tribe ornaments decorating their igloo, and the simple interactions, such as an embrace between her mother and father, show that this is a loving home. Korra immediately gets in the face of the 3 White Lotus members who are visibly shocked at Korra’s skill and in your face attitude with her declaration of “I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!” From here, we skip to Korra age 17 taking her test on fire bending in the southern water tribe. It is now we see a familiar face. If you have been watching the promos, or saw any of the leaked footage, you knew that this weathered old lady standing on a platform observing was Katara, Aang's wife. You would also know that standing there, watching this new young Avatar strut her skills, Katara has been without Aang for 17 years. For someone who has followed the show from the start it was very moving, and made all the more impressive that there was not a single line of dialogue forced on us to address this harsh truth. Katara must be very sad, but you know from who she was from the original series, she would be very proud of Korra’s physical and emotional strength. Back to Korra; she passes her test with a triumphant “woo hoo”, which we soon discover means she mastered 3 out of the 4 elements (the opposite of Aang). Now it’s time for air, so enter stage right Tenzin, Aang and Katara's youngest child, and only airbender. He himself has three little airbenders of his own and a possible fourth on the way.

I find Tenzin an interesting character. When I first heard about him and saw him in the promos, I expected him to be a slightly more serious version of good old Iroh. However, our first interaction with him is his very defeated response of “Yes, like I’ve been telling you for the last 15 minutes, we are finally here,” to his daughter’s (Ikki) incessant questioning of are they there yet. While this is going on, his son Meelo is climbing all over him and chewing on his head. Tenzin’s head and shoulders are slumped in defeat; it’s a great visual. Katara is there waiting to greet her family, and Tenzin is more than happy to hand them over to her. Korra waits eagerly in the background as Tenzin catches up with Katara, however, she quickly grabs his attention. From their interaction it’s obvious that they have met before, but when Korra was much younger; there is a formal closeness to them. Quickly, it becomes apparent that Tenzin can't stay to teach Korra in the water tribe, but must return to his city - Republic City (the city is facing troubling times) - as he is a leader within the city. His attempts at explaining to Korra why he must go back home fall on deaf ears, with Korra's great dismissive response of “whatever” while walking away being just what I'd expect from a 17 year old. As Korra is forced to watch her dreams fly away (on a flying bison no less) she hatches a plan of her own; to go to Republic City and learn air bending there. With Katara's blessing Korra is off, and as mentioned previously, Korra’s journey is portrayed quickly, but very effectively. All up to this point, the show has had a very organic and natural feel.

    Jinora, Ikki, Meelo, with father Tenzin and mother Perma 
"Welcome to Republic City"! The city was founded by both Aang and Zuko after the war was over and has a very jazzy NYC/Chicago feel; there's even a giant Aang statue that adorns the harbor. Before Korra makes her way to Tenzin, she gets distacted by the city. However, the big city is not entirely what Korra was expecting; it's big yes and somewhat shiny, but there are some ugly truths. There is homelessness, as well as crime perpetrated by gangs, and even an anti-bending revolution. Korra is forced to deal with all of these on her first visit. She gives the homeless man a fish, but there isn't much more she can do at this stage to help him, even having to run away quickly as it becomes apparent that fishing in the city's central park is illegal. She then gets into, and loses, a debate with an anti-bending revolutionary she unwisely engages and childishly threatens. And when she tries to stop a gang from taking money from a shop owner, she inadvertently causes more damages and once again becomes a fugitive of the law (for about 5 minutes). So good first day! When caught by the metal-bending police, she is interrogated by Toph's daughter, Lin Beifong, and boy does Lin seem like a chip off the old block (I think I'm going to like her a lot). Lin is the tough take no shit from anyone kind of woman. Her daughter was a very tough individual who immediately butted heads with the original gang when she joined them in the original series. Lin, too, seems more than willing to butt heads, but you get the feeling she is motivated for vastly different reasons. She is the chief of police of a city the size of New York, and she has real and immediate problems to deal with. An all powerful being only adds to that. At first, Korra uses her status as Avatar, as well as the history between Toph and Aang to try to get out of trouble, but Lin isn’t moved, much to Korra’s disappointment. Eventually, Tenzin comes along to bail Korra out, and while leaving jail, Lin gives Korra the old “I’m going to keep my eyes on you” hand motion that Korra responds to in kind, much to Lin’s frustration. It was childish yes, but there to show us that in time, Korra and Lin may be more alike, and thus have some common ground to build a relationship upon. Outside, Korra tries unsuccessfully to convince Tenzin to let her stay and train with him. While he escorts her back to the dock of waiting White Lotus guards, Tenzin gazes at the statue of Aang. You can tell he longs for his dads presence, possibly for some sage advice, or maybe because if his dad were still around, Tenzin would not be the one making the difficult decisions. It’s at this point where he realizes that though Republic City is part of Aang’s legacy (just as Tenzin and his kids are too), Korra is a huge part of what Aang left behind; she is Aang reincarnated after all. Tenzin realizes that its time he takes on the responsibility of training Korra, not just for Korra’s sake, but for everything his father stood for. With great happiness and excitement, Korra hugs Tenzin, his three kids, and effortlessly picks them all up at once. The next day, Korra gives a speech to a waiting crowd of journalists about her plans for the city while Tenzin and Lin stand behind her. Korra once again shows her lack of experience at public speech, and stumbles her way through the answers, and just before she gets too in over her head, Tenzin steps in to end the questioning. However, in some deep underground layer, a dark, shadowy figure, wearing a golden mask, listens to the radio broadcast of the return of the Avatar. When one of his subordinates asks him what they should do, Amon, our new bad guy, responds very calmly that it’s time to accelerate their plans! What plans are they? I look forward to finding out over the course of the show. Very interesting indeed.

This was a great start, and it bodes well for the series to come. If you are a fan of the original series, or well written, animated, and charming shows, you will find a welcome home here. Thanks for reading. This is part one of the two episode premier review. The second episode will follow shortly in the week with its own review. I hope to continue to review the show as it airs. Thanks for reading. Oh, and one last thing. How painfully charming was that Zuko mom tease? I just want to know the truth already!!!

You Gotta Deal With It!
Posted by: DogFish

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