It’s rare to find an animated series that appeals to both kids and adults. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is one such show. It never talks down to its audience and doesn’t feel like an extended commercial for a bunch of cheap toys. “Avatar” was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko who met at the Rhode Island School of Design and have worked in various capacities on shows like “Family Guy” and “King of the Hill.” They successfully pitched the concept to Nickelodeon where it debuted in 2005. Since then, “Avatar” (not to be confused with James Cameron’s blockbuster) gained a large and loyal following including M. Night Shyamalan who became a fan after watching it with his kids. Now, he’s directing a live-action version. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out they’re all ghosts living inside a forest of malicious trees.
“Avatar” is set in a fantastical world where mankind is divided into four elemental nations: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. In each tribe, there are special individuals known as benders who have the ability to control their respective element. However, there is one and only one person who has the power to control all four elements. They are known as the Avatar. When the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated from one nation to the next.
The latest in the long line of Avatars is 12-year old Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), a monk and member of the Air Nomads. But, Aang disappeared for over a century before being found frozen inside a glacier at the South Pole by Katara (Mae Whitman) and her brother Sokka (Jack DeSena) of the Water Tribe. Since his disappearance, Aang learns that the Fire Nation declared war on the other tribes and wiped out the Air Nomads in an effort to destroy the Avatar.
Katara is a neophyte waterbender still attempting to master her ability. Sokka is brash and a bit of a chauvinist, providing much of the show’s comic relief. The siblings lost their mother to the Fire Nation’s attacks while their father is serving in the Navy. Together, they travel across the globe to help Aang perfect his powers and topple the Fire Nation. They are joined in their quest by Aang’s flying bison, Appa, and a bat-winged lemur named Momo.
Hot on their trail is Prince Zuko (Dante Basco), the disgraced son of Lord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Nation. Accompanied by his eccentric Uncle Iroh (Mako), Prince Zuko is tasked with capturing the Avatar in order to end his exile and restore his honor.
Influenced by anime and Hong Kong action films, DiMartino and Konietzko melded Eastern and Western themes for their series. The look of the show has a heavy dose of Japanese anime to it and in particular Miyazaki. It’s hard not to think of “Princess Mononoke” when you look at the rich backgrounds and colorful world of “Avatar”. Not to mention Appa looks like he stepped right out of “My Neighbor Totoro.” The show’s offbeat humor owes a lot to anime as well. The animation doesn’t look cheap either. It’s very detailed and the action sequences are fluid.
Most importantly, the writing is exceptionally strong. “Avatar” isn’t a series of 22-minute one and done episodes. It weaves an intricate tapestry to create a deep mythology to the world. While told episodically, “Avatar” is one long journey that builds with every installment. It does get a little cheesy when every episode deals with a character learning a valuable life lesson.
Paramount has released the show on DVD in individual volumes as well as complete season sets. The first season was released as “The Complete Book 1: Water” and is being re-released in this new collector’s edition to coincide with the upcoming theatrical version. The first season is spread out over 5 discs and the episodes included here are:
“The Boy in the Iceberg”
“The Avatar Returns”
“The Southern Air Temple”
“The Warriors of Kyoshi”
:”The King of Omashu”
“The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1)”
“Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2)”
“The Waterbending Scroll”
“The Great Divide”
“The Blue Spirit”
“Bato of the Water Tribe”
“The Northern Air Temple”
“The Waterbending Master”
“The Siege of the North, Part 1”
“The Siege of the North, Part 2”
Also look for guest voice appearances from George Takei, Kevin Michael Richardson, James Hong, and Jason Isaacs.
The video is presented in the original fullscreen aspect ratio. The transfer looks great with nary a blemish to be seen. The colors are bold and bright.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.
This new edition from Paramount features the previous Season 1 release in a new hardbound slipcase.
On Disc 1, you’ll find Behind the Scenes: Kung Fu Featurette, a series of four featurettes discussing each of the elemental bending and the real-life martial arts styles that influenced them. All four featurettes run about a minute long.
On Disc 2 is The Making of Avatar – From Real Life to Animation (3:59), a quick and jokey featurette with the show’s creators acting out scenes from the series.
Disc 3 features Behind the Scenes: The Voices of Avatar (4:35), a short look at a few of the voice talents behind the show.
Disc 4 features Ask the Creators (3:04) with DiMartino and Konietzko providing short answers to fan questions. You’ll also get the Original Animatics to Chapter 15, “Bato of the Water Tribe.”
Disc 5 contains audio commentaries over all four episodes. Sound designer Benjamin Wynn and Dee Bradley Baker (the voice of Appa & Momo) provide the commentary for “Northern Air Temple,” while DiMartino, Konietzko, and writer Aaron Ehasz provide commentary for the remaining three.
Disc 6 is the set’s bonus disc. Here, you’ll find:
Behind the Scenes with the Avatar Cast & Crew (3:15) is another brief EPK-style featurette about the making of Avatar.
The Making of Avatar – Inside the Sounds Studio(6:11) is a look at the creation of the show’s sound effects and foley work.
The Making of Avatar – Inside the Korean Animation Studio (25:44) takes us over to South Korea where members of the animation studio answer questions about the show.
Avatar Pilot Episode (15:00) is the original short that was used to pitch the series to the network with commentary by the creators.
The Collector’s Edition contains an exclusive bonus disc containing a behind-the-scenes documentary (32:21). The feature takes us through the initial beginnings of the show, the gathering of components, and previews the concluding chapter. It’s much more substantial than anything else in the boxset.
Finally, you’ll get a preview edition of Avatar: The Art of the Animated Series.
Built on a solid foundation of good, old-fashioned storytelling, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a wonderful series for audiences of any age. “Avatar” deftly fuses action, adventure, drama, and comedy into the tried and true journey of a hero. With the live-action film soon to hit theaters, those wanting to get in on the ground up will surely wish to pick up this new Collector’s Edition.