Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Other Avatar

Before Cameron's blockbuster, there was Avatar: The Last Airbender, an award-winning Asian-flavored, fantasy cartoon on Nickelodeon.  It ran for 3 seasons between 2005-2008, and is soon to be a live-action motion picture. Avatar was one of the best things to come out of American animation in some time--a bona fide fantasy epic in a well-realized world.

The titular last airbender is Aang, a young boy who is the last survivor of the Air Nomads (think Tibetian monks--with flying, six-legged bison mounts), frozen Captain America-style in ice. Aang is found by two young members of the South Polar Water Tribe (Inuit, perhaps)--the last survivors of their people, as well. The three embark on a quest across the world to help Aang fulfill his destiny. Aang is the latest incarnation of the avatar, the bridge between the Spirit World and mankind--the only human able to master all four elements.

While the writing and characterization on Avatar set it apart from most kids' cartoons, perhaps its freshest trait is the amount of world-building that went into it. Each of the four primary cultures centered around one of the classical elements--Air Nomads, Water Tribe, Fire Nation, and Earth Kingdom--have their own distinctive styles of clothing, architecture, and martial arts based around the use ("bending") or their element. These are drawn mostly from East Asian models, though there are Native American influences among the Water Tribe, and some minor cultures within several lands. There is a coherency uncommon in genre TV for adults, much less children's animation. The recently published artbook for the animated series not only highlights the detail that went into costuming and character design, but also reveals how they employed an instructor of martial arts to help develop the distinct styles of each elemental culture, and an expert in Chinese calligraphy to design all the written documents that appear in the series.

Avatar's strongly categorized world and evocative visuals make it good inspiration for gaming. Bob over at Vargold gave us Barbarians of Lemuria stats for Sokka, one of the main characters, and I've seen Mutants & Mastermind stats, as well. It's too bad there hasn't been any official rpg, though, perhaps one aimed at younger audiences.

M. Night Shyamalan's live action The Last Airbender is coming in July. While the trailers certainly look visually exciting, I have some concerns about the casting, and question whether Shyamalan was right for the material. Still, the animated series will be out there, no matter what, and well worth checking out.


John Matthew Stater said...

I'll second this - excellent cartoon. I'm not planning to see the movie - there's nothing they can add, and so much they can detract.

Trey said...

I understand that feeling, but I'm guardly interested in the movie. It impending release did get some friends of mine hesitant about watching a mere cartoon to finally watch the series.