Avatar

A few weeks ago, I got an email asking if I would be interested in receiving a copy of Avatar, Book 3, Volume 3.  I asked T if that was that show that he and the boys have been watching on netflix, and he said yes.  So I accepted the disk, and asked T to write the review.  As you’ll see, he’s effusive in his praise.  If you read this blog, you know that I’m not always that nice to folks who send me stuff to review, so this is the real deal.

The boys are now all caught up, so they’re eagerly awaiting the last 6 episodes, airing on Nick later this summer.

****************

Avatar is that greatest of
rarities, a show that educates children in such a distracting and
entrancing way that they never even begin to suspect that they’re being
informed.

For those completely disconnected from the series, a brief summary:
Avatar takes place in a setting assembled piece-meal from elements of
chinese culture and legend, but assembled with quite western
sentiments.  It features four nations, each associated with one of the
classical four elements, and each gifted with people with the talent to
"bend" that element to their will.  As the introduction that rolls
before each show explains, all was in harmony until the fire nation
attacked.  The Avatar, a figure reincarnated into each new era, can
alone learn to control all four elements and bring balance back to the
land.  But he disappeared a century ago, right when he was needed
most.  The series follows the rediscovered young Avatar and both good
comrades and dire enemies.

Simple, yes?  Fantasy at its most formulaic:  A messianic figure
with wierd magic mojo, setting forth on a quest to win freedom for a
world oppressed by a faceless evil empire.

Yes, all that is there … but also in the best tradition of
fantasy, that’s not all there is.  Magic isn’t just a gimmick or a
tool, and bending isn’t just a weapon by another name (though it is
associated with various martial arts styles, and the action scenes that
are liberally sprinkled through the series are -stellar-).  The
elements and the cultures are intimately fused, and bending is both a
result of and the cause of those cultures distinctive virtues.  To
learn water-bending, you must master the ways of thinking that help
make you a good member of the water tribes, and so on.  It’s not about
power, it’s about personality.

The avatar starts the series already trained as an air bender, and
his personality is yielding, slippery, free and flighty.  He’s a kid
… a sweet, generous, fun-loving, irresponsible kid.  He is, without
question, possessed of a type of wisdom.  The thing is, he starts the
series possessed of only -one- kind of wisdom.  In order to reach his
destiny, face the Fire-Lord and restore peace and justice and all that
jazz, he needs to learn that there is more than one way of thinking,
more than one set of virtues, more than one path of wisdom.  He needs
to learn all four types of bending, which means learning four very
different ways of thinking.  When he studies earth-bending, the
intense, unyielding mirror of his own set of virtues, his teacher puts
it very clearly:  "No, you’re thinking like an air-bender!  There is no
different angle, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock.  If
you want to move it you have to face it head on!"

The concept that a full person should be able to bring a whole
catalog of different viewpoints to a problem is far too rare in
children’s television.  All too often it is exchanged for an easy "One
lesson, hammered home," formula which at best makes characters shallow
and unappealing, and at worst actually convinces children that a single
moral touchstone will be enough for everything life is going to throw
at them.  The messages may be good (in fact, they almost invariably
are) but by blanking out the rest of the moral universe in order to fit
into twenty-two minutes, such simple shows do children a disservice.

Quite simply, Avatar is the antidote to simple-minded kids action
shows.  It uses the conceit of bending to bring a broad range of
emotional and moral issues out of the shadows and examine them closely,
in terms that kids find understandable and interesting.  The show’s
characters make mistakes.  They have flaws … often grievous,
world-wrenching flaws, and those flaws cause terrible things to
happen.  Every last one of them earns a fair portion of guilt and
shame, but also a heaping helping of confidence and strength.  Again,
all of this tends to be a marked contrast from less nuanced children’s
television.

Which brings me to the character who really shines in Book Three,
Volume Three … a character who, to my mind, is consistently the most
intriguing of the series:  Prince Zuko.

Prince Zuko is the much-abused son of that most abusive villain of
the series, the Fire-Lord … heir to the guy behind, well, pretty much
everything evil going on in the world.  Zuko is there with us from the
very first episode, banished by his father until such time as he
returns with the captured Avatar.  He is, it seems very much, the bad
guy: a remorseless, driven young man who will stop at *nothing* to
regain his honor by hunting, hounding and attacking the heroes of the
series.

And yet ….

The series portrays his qualities clearly:  His constant, explosive
anger, his unyielding determination, his restless pride, his devilish
cunning.  He’s got all the tools a good villain needs.  And, bit by
bit, we learn that these are virtues too.  He is passionate, driven,
clever, brave.  He starts the series trying to be a good boy, to follow
the course his father set, and as his life becomes worse and worse (the
heroes always slipping from his grasp, his failures accumulating and
poisoning his life further) he slowly grows into a desire to be a good
man.

In this collection he sloughs off the destiny that his father would
shape him into, and sets out on his own path.  It is the turning point
that the series has been leading to for years, and it is
-magnificent-.  It is only natural that this should lead him to ally
with his former enemies … and only natural that such an alliance
should be hard on everyone involved.

The series has my young son asking some big questions:  What does it
mean to have done bad things, and want to make it right?  How much can
you look to other people for guidance, and how much do you need to do
all alone?  Can you offer forgiveness and trust to one who has harmed
you deeply, without denying your own hurt?  Can you withhold that
chance at redemption, without destroying a piece of yourself?

The trope of bending has a lot to do with getting these questions
across to children.  Does my son understand how very hard, how very
important the confrontation between Zuko and his abusive father was?  I
don’t know, though I suspect not.  But he understands that the
Fire-Lord levelled a fire-bending attack that would easily have
-destroyed- the younger Zuko, and that because of his experiences the
young prince was able not only to survive the attack but turn it back
against its source.  My son literally screamed in surprise and
satisfaction when it happened.  He grabbed me and shook me, saying "Did
you see that?  Did you SEE?  He reflected it, just like his uncle
showed him!" 

If my son doesn’t see through the symbolism to the deeper human
drama, I’m not really sure it matters.  That is the power of symbolism,
after all … the lesson that adversity and the support of those you
love will strengthen you is the same whether you see that it can help
you survive a harsh word, or survive a magic-woo-woo burst of lightning
and flame.

And if, as in the case of Avatar, the two lessons are seamlessly
paired … well, maybe that’s building a bridge to teach young children
to resonate with the symbols in stories all around them.

Or maybe it’s just keeping them entertained with spectacular drama,
while it subtly acquaints them with some of the hardest questions in
life.  I’m fine with that too.

****************

One Response to “Avatar”

  1. Anneke T Says:

    I’m a fan of the Avatar series too – it’s nice to have a show that is enjoyable on so many levels, so that we’re all genuinely excited to watch together!

Leave a Reply