It’s surprising, considering the plethora of animated and/or kid-friendly shows, just how many entrants into the general realm of the “cartoon,” have really gone down as game changers. In 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender not only took off and managed a difficult to believe popularity, but it also rose to an entirely new level. In fact, it managed to reinvent its own genre to such a degree that everything since has had to create itself as clearly in a post-Avatar world.
Not merely a fine enough children’s show, but without question one of the best things that has ever happened to television (and I’m a fairly snooty film critic at heart).
The show’s greatest play was its brilliant marriage of elements (no pun intended), that combined not only the simpler things, but far deeper subjects as well, and all of it delivered in a way that showed the utmost respect for the kids it also wanted to entertain. That is, it threw in fun, even silly, antics to lighten the mood after the dark and ominous, and provided as much wild adventure as it did pure action. More importantly, it balanced the hopes, fears, and shortcomings of interesting characters moving along their “normal” lives, against a backdrop of intensely rich culture and mythology.
It had life lessons delivered through honest, competing perspectives, and it ultimately had more to say, and said it better, than countless “educational” titles combined. But, it all came through in a way that spoke volumes about the people behind it, and professed a certain frame of mind that suggested that, if you just give a kid a decent spark, it turns out they’re all geniuses.
Well, now the creators of Avatar have a new show, The Legend of Korra, and while it’s hard to predict just how things are going to turn out after only two episodes, it looks like we have all the right elements (seriously) in place.
This one takes place some 70 years after the the original show ended, and while there is a certain level of peace among the benders, the new Avatar has her share of challenges ahead of her. After Aang passed away, the Avatar was reborn, this time into a water bender named Korra. Designed with slightly older viewers in mind (apparently), Korra is in her late teens, and she’s tired of being cooped up, while the entire world goes on without her.
First off, though she’s pretty well mastered three elements, air bending eludes her, and since her instructor is supposed to be Tenzin, one of Aang’s sons, she assumes that means she gets to go to the marvelous Republic City, a sprawling place created by Aang as a place where everyone could come together in peace. The City has become the jewel of the world, with residents from all over the globe.
As we move through the first episode, Korra makes her way to the city, and the general clash of the world this time around is revealed in the form of an anti-bending, terrorist movement. Korra quickly finds she has a lot to learn, as not everyone welcomes her with open arms, including the head of the city’s police force.
There is a sense in which we have created the same overall dynamic, even if it is updated, and transformed for a somewhat older audience, and as much as that might normally stand out as a negative to me, here I trust the choice. Naga, for example, is Korra polar bear-dog and faithful, giant animal companion, and Pabu is the cute and lovable-ish fire ferret.
Mako and Bolin, members of a pro-bending team (bending has been turned into a sport), look to become the main companions for Korra, and they exhibit the basic character traits previously given to us through the dueling outlooks of siblings Sokka and Katara (Katara, by the way, is still around). Amon, the masked leader of the anti-bending movement, serves as the force to be dealt with.
But, as much as things have in some way stayed the same, they sure look a lot different. It’s an updated world, and the city now boasts cars and other conveniences, and while Aang had a very straight-forward problem, with straight-forward goals (even if it wound up rather twisty to get there), this world presents more grown up challenges. Though, of course, I don’t know how these things play out, it seems that Korra’s journey will be one that involves less that might be seen as a “quest,” and a lot more that is simply ferreting out the complexities of a very adult world.
This leads to the updated, and aged, version of what stood out as the best feature of the original show, working through difficulties that the target audience can relate to. Where the difficulties our original trio dealt with clearly connected with problems and uncertainties about life younger audiences would face, impulsive Korra, unversed in the ways of the world, finds herself thrown into the life of an adult, with big city realities looming all around her.
As I said, it’s difficult to judge a show on only a couple of episodes, but this one looks to include all the pieces that made the original work so well, and what it already manages best among them is the delivery of its characters. I may have my own bias toward the story, the development of a rich and powerful cultural mythology, and the clever insertion of life lessons, but it also gives us these things wrapped in lots of fun and action.
My youngest daughter (who is perhaps just slightly younger than the official target audience) was recently introduced to the original show, and she has never taken to anything faster, or become more invested in anything on television. She becomes quite nervous at the menacing bits, laugh uncontrollably at the comedy, and is ever eager to know what happens next. Most importantly, she talks about it, asks questions about it, and clearly challenges herself to understand why things play out as they do. That amazes me, and The Legend of Korra, though obvious in a certain regard, seems cut of the same cloth, and able to deliver, not the same things precisely, but the same experience, only for a somewhat older crowd.
If there was ever a show, and franchise, to support as what young adult television ought to be doing, and how it ought to be doing it (apart from iCarly), this is it.
You can check out the first two episodes online right now at nick.com, and see for yourself. The show premieres April 14th with these two episodes back to back.
Check the trailer below, and let me know what you think about the show.