It’s been almost three years since Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) has been available to stream on Netflix. Of course, when it became available, I had to re-watch one of my favorite childhood TV shows. As I binged the series, I realized how great this TV show is. This show is one that I continuously return to simply because it is one of the best animated shows of all time (in my opinion). Although it is technically a children’s TV show, everyone should watch it, and let me explain why.
Let’s begin by examining the idea of world-building. World-building is constructing a world by developing an imaginary setting with history, geography, and ecology. In the first episode, we hear Katara, one of the principal characters, narrate the introduction monologue. We begin to understand the history of this fantasy world, and we see a glimpse of the geography. In the first episode, Katara describes a world of elements, nations, tribes, kingdoms, and the peace that existed between them maintained by the Avatar, master of all four elements. This opening sequence has successfully demonstrated how to build a fantasy world. While watching the opening sequence, we obtain a basic history and continue to see the geography. As the show progresses, we learn more history about this fantasy world and the characters themselves. We watch how the four nations are different in geography and ecology. Although it seems silly to have animals such as a “platypus bear” or “saber-tooth moose lion,” it continues to help the audience understand the world these characters live in. With the opening sequence and the first episode, viewers learn that this world is divided into four nations, all based on the elements. To understand the geography and the four nations, the creators of this show drew inspiration from all around the world. To start, the Water tribe is inspired by Inuit and Yupik cultures. The Earth Kingdom was influenced by the culture within China, and Imperial Japan heavily influenced the Fire Nation. Finally, the Air Nomads were inspired by Buddhists in Tibet, Shaolin Monks, and Sri Lankan Buddhism. It is important to note that each of the four nations is more than just a couple of cultures. For example, the influence of Hindu, Mayan, Aztec, and Tuareg cultures can be seen throughout this show. The creators of ATLA also drew inspiration for fighting styles from different martial art styles such as Tai Chi, Hung Gar, Ba Gua, and more. An article written by Brian Pham explains in more detail the cultures represented in ATLA (I highly recommend reading it). ATLA has successfully and respectfully built this fantasy world by drawing influences from numerous cultures, specifically Asian and Indigenous cultures.
Secondly, this show is painted with several well-developed characters. Throughout the three seasons, viewers watch each principal character develop into a more well-rounded character. In the first season, it is clear that Aang, the protagonist, is a 12-year-old boy. However, by the third season, you forget that Aang is still a kid. Furthermore, we see this with Katara, Zuko, Sokka, Toph, etc. However, one of my favorite character developments is with Princess Azula, one of the main antagonists. When viewers first meet Azula, the princess of the Fire Nation, she is ruthless and calculated, always appearing to be one step ahead of the heroes. Yet, near the final episodes, Azula begins to break and crack, losing her cool and collected demeanor. Since childhood, her father has favored her. She grew up as a soldier, not a child. Her mother, Ursa, on the other hand, did not share the same feelings. Ursa loved Azula, yet Azula could not comprehend this idea. Instead, fear grew when love diminished. Growing as a soldier, but not as a person, ultimately hindered her success. In season three, episode 13, viewers watch Azula’s “best friends,” Mai and Ty Lee, betray her. Viewers start to see Azula’s fall because she lost control and miscalculated. Azula depended on the idea that everyone would listen to her out of fear, yet being out of touch with her emotions, she could not comprehend why Mai and Ty Lee would choose love over fear. By season three, episode 16, Azula begins to lose trust and is surrounded by fear and anxiety. We watch Azula cut her hair poorly, revealing that, like her hair, she is broken and damaged. In addition, viewers watch Azula have an imaginary conversation with herself in a mirror, but thinks she sees her mom. In the end, Azula breaks the mirror as she can’t confront the truth that her mom loved her. This finalizes the idea that Azula herself is broken from the inside and out. In the last episode, Azula challenges Zuko to an Agni Kai, a traditional firebender duel, but ultimately loses. When she is captured, she begins to break down, unable to accept her defeat. Azula is a character who never loses, always getting what she wants. In the end, she became the cause of her own downfall. Of course, there are more characters that I can delve into. This is only one of the many examples of how the characters are so well-developed in this show.
Next, I want to touch upon the beautiful storytelling within the show. The writers followed a consistent story from seasons one through three. Throughout each season, we watch Avatar Aang learn the four elements as he travels the world. Viewers learn about different cultures within the four nations, and we see Aang and his friends learn valuable life lessons. Most notably, ATLA dives into powerful and heavy topics. Viewers can see the catastrophic and devastating effects of war and how it affects each of the four nations. Viewers also learn about genocide, propaganda, family abuse, trauma, vengeance, mental health, and more. ATLA also reveals the deeper parts of life, showing that the world isn’t as black and white as one thinks it may be. The characters experience war, death, love, regret, redemption, peace, and hate. ATLA showcases the good and the bad within these topics. However, most importantly, these characters learn how to face their inner demons and traumas. They learn the importance of healing and living with everything that they have gone through.
Lastly, ATLA has some of the most beautiful animations. On top of everything listed above, the animation ties everything together. Bright and vibrant colors can be seen throughout the show. Each nation has its own colors as well. Water is blue and white, Fire is red and black, Earth is green with a light yellow, and Air is orange and yellow. Views can easily differentiate between the four nations. Also, each has its own architecture and fashion styles. In addition, the animators do a great job bringing the elements to the screen and creating several action-packed scenes. The animators effectively showcase fight choreography, ensuring the animation is not cheesy or shallow. Instead, small details and vibrant colors truly brought out some of the best animations in this show. Most notably, in season three episode 16, during the Agni Kai between Zuko and Azula. The intense colors of red and blue light up the screen, creating a beautiful fight scene. The animation continues to develop with each season and is full of detail and pays homage to several cultures.
This is just scratching the surface as to why ATLA is an amazing show. Through its world-building, amazing characters, storytelling, and animation, ATLA brings together a world that many have fallen in love with.