I love my cartoons, but I hate the current crop—all trading cards, no love. It would take something pretty special to impress me.
Behind the Assumption: As I said, I really love my cartoons.
Previous Experience: Though I’d been told by many much-respected friends it was great, I didn’t buy it. Nickelodeon hardly seemed respectable, and neither did the idea of “Ameri-me”, which I associated with Pokemon rip-offs.
Results: So I was wrong. Avatar: The Last Airbender is certainly not on the Pokemon continuum. It is, and ready your eye-rolls, The Wire for pre-teens. If that’s too much of a leap, call it the greatest animated series ever—childlike, but not childish, funny, vivid, exciting, challenging, and fully realized morally, in a way that no cartoon show I can think of matches.
Avatar made me envious of the current crop of children who get to grow up with it. My Saturday mornings were cheap and simplistic, fueled by recycled animation sequences, stock characters, and facile homilies. Voltron won the day after Pidge learned that teamwork was important, and joined the same (if awesome and iconic) transformation sequence that was the staple of a Voltron climax. The blazing sword was formed, and the ro-beast exploded. An Avatar would have blasted my story-starved brains out the back of my head.
Avatar won my respect by treating its audience as sophisticated. It never forgets to be fun—there are jokes, bad puns, wacky shenanigans, crazy outfits, and much slapstickery—and there is the standard moralistic boilerplate about self-esteem, bullies, and the handicapped, yet the show isn’t afraid to be challenging, behaving more maturely than many series made for adults I could name. A crisis introduced in season 1 isn’t resolved until the series finale. One character’s behavior leads to his death, but also has consequences on the important action 10 episodes later. Villains do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and heroes can screw up their own plans by letting their emotions get the better of them. In one of my favorite moments, we’re expected to revel in the bad guys being bad guys and doing bad things. Why? Because there’s no greater Saturday morning truism than “Bad guys are the coolest”. In another, the most moral hero ends the episode horrifically morally compromised, tainted in a cycle of ethnic strife, abuse, and knowledge that enables revenge. Why? Because justice and vengeance is a tricky dance, and ethnic hatreds are passed down from generation to generation, and not even the fictional ones can be solved by a cartoon.
Yes, Avatar impressed me in ways no children’s show ever has. Its sweeping quest and witty goofiness reconnected with me, Saturday morning acolyte, at the same time its savvy, honesty, and maturity shocked and pleased, unforgiving dissector of tales. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the cartoon all kids deserve.
Shame the movie sucked so badly.
Least Sexy Moment: Though well documented by intrepid internet pervs, I couldn’t buy the Aang and Katara relationship—he’s, like, 13, she’s, like, 15, it won’t last.
All-Stars Shoe Sighting: None. Though teeming with majestic, Asian-flavored landscapes, vistas, and architectures, the world of Avatar has not yet developed the Converse All-Star.