The pilot of Avatar: The Last Airbender stands up well as an establishing episode. I’ve watched this series several times now and I’m still impressed at how the show puts its best foot forward right from the beginning.
This is evident first in the opening sequence. Nowadays it seems that television shows eschew narrated opening sequences, but this wasn’t the case before the turn of the century. However, most of the time this was a mark against the show, not a statement in its favor. Notable exceptions were the Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series (a trend that ended with TNG, I believe) – though I may be biased due to my affection for Trek.
What I love about this shows introduction sequence is that it isn’t just a filler for credits; it introduces you to the world you’re entering, the major factions, the historical backdrop, and a brief montage of the main characters. The only other animated introduction that has impressed me with its ability to do this so well is the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series.
Also notable from the introduction is the art style of this series. Although Nickelodeon takes its artistic cues from Japanese anime, this is clearly American animation. Additionally, it’s interesting to see the styles of familiar famous anime – notably Hayao Miyazaki – combined with digital animation. On one hand, I find the digital insertions to be a bit jarring. The movement from the drawn map of the world to the digitally placed ships of the Fire Nation shows the stark difference of a softly drawn world and the hard lines of computer rendering. However, the animators seem to have only rarely used digital animation and to good effect overall.
Alright, to the episode. The episode introduces us to our main characters by establishing dual plotlines. We’re first introduced to Katara & Sokka, out fishing for their village. Right off the bat, you’re reminded that this show is geared towards kids as we are thrust into a typical brother/sister teasing, joking, whining, pseudo-fighting scene. But what sets this otherwise mundane drama apart is the undertone of tension (and perhaps even tragedy) in the reality that these two are responsible for their tribe in a largely troubled world.
I really appreciate the alternating plots between character pairs. Katara & Sokka are contrasted with Uncle Iroh and Prince(?!) Zuko. It’s quickly apparent that despite the differing cultures and settings, they’re complementary sets. Katara is to Sokka as Iroh is to Zuko. Both Sokka and Zuko are young men thrust into responsibility before they have the experience to handle it. Katara and Iroh are the calming, mature influences that temper them and provide a reflective counterpoint to the rashness of the boys they accompany, though not without faults of their own.
Having established the four main characters, we’re introduced to Aang and Appa (his flying bison, though the descriptor has yet to be proven!) towards the end of the episode. Though we the audience know that we’re meeting the titular character, his discoverers (Katara & Sokka) are yet ignorant. The beacon of light alerts Zuko and by extension, Iroh, to his awakening. After Aang’s introduction to the village, he and Katara accidentally set off a trap in a derelict Fire Nation ship, giving Zuko the location of Aang and the Southern Water Tribe’s village – and sets the stage for the conflict between our paired protagonists and antagonists.
Throughout all of this, we are introduced to a number of themes that are especially promising: Aang’s guilty evasion of questions about the Avatar, how he and Appa came to be encased in ice, the question of Aang being the ‘last’ airbender and the significance of that to others and for him, Zuko’s status (honor-bound?) and why he has been searching (and for so long, apparently) for the Avatar, Zuko’s constant state of anger, and Katara & Sakko’s backstory as to how they came to be in charge of their village.
It’s a strong start to the series, with foreshadowing for everyone involved. If the series can make good on these threads, we’re in for a fun ride.