Sunday, October 10, 2010

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Season Three (2007)

Starring Zach Eisen, Mae Whitman and Jack DeSena
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Holy pacing problems, Batman!  While the third season of Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" features some of the most epic action and emotional storylines for its characters, it also suffers from wildly problematic issues with pace.  At times it feels the producers almost don't know what to do with themselves, putting the now rather large cast of characters through a cycle of split-ups and reunions before slamming headlong into the massive, four-part series finale.

That finale, while huge and hugely entertaining, also suffers from some writing conceit issues that reek of either laziness or desperation from the writers who suddenly found that they'd either forgotten to include some thing to raise the stakes suitably for a series finale OR realized they'd written themselves into a bit of a corner because stopping the Fire Lord would most likely mean killing him, which would be kind of a no-no both for the fact that this is a children's show and because the hero is very much against killing as a means of victory in battle.

Thus, the finale becomes both epically awesome and disappointingly problematic in a fashion that's somewhat hard to describe.  Firstly, though Zuko (Dante Basco) has finally realized his destiny is to help Aang (Zach Eisen) defeat his father Ozai (Mark Hamill) and restore honor to the Fire Nation, he doesn't bother to inform anyone of Ozai's plans to burn the entirety of the Earth Nation to a cinder on the day of Sozin's Comet.  This cheat forces Aang to realize that he must confront Ozai earlier than he'd planned (for some reason, he felt he should wait until after the comet had passed, even though he'd been warned earlier that he must defeat Ozai before the comet gives Ozai the power to rule the entire world).  So that already doesn't make sense, but it sets up Aang's emotional arc for the four-part finale, which is to figure out a way to defeat Ozai without killing him.

Now, Aang spent the rest of the entire series learning to master the four elements (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) in order to defeat Ozai.  But when it comes down to it, none of that is how he ultimately defeats Ozai!  In the final moments of the battle, Aang suddenly realizes a new skill (energy bending) which he uses to remove Ozai's ability to control fire.  It's a cheat, and an obvious one at that, conceived out of nowhere at the last second to cover up a big "oops" on the part of the producers.

The third season in general also has pacing problems.  Aang practically disappears for a large chunk of episodes around the middle of the season which end up focusing on the group going on various adventures with Zuko, such as rescuing Suki and Sokka and Katara's father from a Fire Nation prison or hunting down the man who killed Katara's mother years earlier.  The producers even seem to know how bizarre this batch of episodes is, since jokes are made about whose turn it is to go off on a "field trip" with Zuko.  Aang's absence in just these handful of three or four episodes gives the entire season a feeling that Aang, who is supposed to be the hero of the whole thing, has taken a back seat while the producers mess around with other ideas.   

And yet, as devastating as these complaints might be, they don't really affect my ability to enjoy the series.  I had a lot of fun watching it, and the emotional resolution for the characters at the end is great.  Every character ends up exactly how they should, and all is right in the world when all is said and done.  The series' approach to respecting its characters is to be commended, as they are truly well-developed and drawn (in more ways than one - har har, pun!).  So while I might frown at certain developments in the plot, I can't find any fault with the emotional core of the series, and even less so with the animation, which renders the battle sequences incredibly.

When I first started this series, many people spoke incredibly highly of it, and I can see why.  I can't, however, rightly call it a perfect series or the best animated series of all time, as I've seen it praised elsewhere.  The third season just spins its wheels a bit too much and then then rushes and nearly wrecks its ending for me to say that.  It teeters on the edge of self-destruction, but thankfully never falls into that abyss.  But it's hard not to notice these flaws, regardless of how entertaining it all is.

Still, it's definitely a series I would return to and even recommend owning.  I will place it high up in the annals of television and animation in general.  Perfectly enjoyable?  Sure.  But perfect?  I just can't.