The Last Airbender Review

The Last Airbender Review

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Starring Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, Jack De Sena, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco, Jessie Flower, and Mako.

The mark of a good story intended for children is that adults can find it interesting as well. I still enjoy the Hobbit, and I appreciated the Narnia books much more once I was an adult. These stories, and many more like them, contain enough depth to satisfy a thoughtful reader while remaining accessible to almost everyone. There has been no greater curse upon our children than the rise of controlled vocabulary reader, containing nothing more advanced than the average knowledge of the targeted age-group, and usually insipid to boot.

I never gave The Last Airbender a chance because I assumed it would be a typical cartoon. In retrospect, this was unfair. I have liked many of the Nicktoons, going all the way back to Ren & Stimpy. Nickelodeon has managed to produce a remarkable number of children's shows that are watchable by adults. Sometimes, they have perhaps gone too far. Ren & Stimpy and Invader Zim were often bizarre and macabre, violating established canons of good taste in search of a gag. Yet these are shows also have the most enduring popularity. They are the kind of cartoons Dads love and Moms hate.

This show strikes a balance between humor and good taste that should satisfy almost any reasonable person. The Magistra and I laughed often. Yet The Last Airbender is also didactic in the best way. It almost never descends into preachiness [almost]. The dramatic arc of the show allows for genuine moral dilemmas. Given the brutal history of the world in which the show is set, these dilemmas often focus on revenge. Almost everyone has a score to settle with someone. The really interesting part is that most of these complaints are completely justified. At lot of people really do deserve to die. Now you you have your enemy at your mercy, what do you do?

This world of war and injustice means that strife is endemic. The combat is largely bloodless, but I was surprised by just how many characters died offscreen. Death is a constant for everyone. The Last Airbender confronts death directly. It is amazingly intense. Yet never forced. I have never seen such a touching memorial for a lost son. The Magistra also cried a lot.

While The Last Airbender is an American cartoon, it borrows from anime for its style and conventions. It even has a beach episode. The world is generically Asiatic, ranging from the Nepalese Airbenders to the Siberian Waterbenders. The bulk of the atmosphere comes from China, however. The martial arts, the overall mythology, the scenic mountain vistas are all Chinese. I approve of this borrowing, since the Han are one of the great civilizations of the world, and deserve to be honored in this way.

Unlike a great many anime series, The Last Airbender managed to stick to the story, and followed the arc to its end in 61 episodes. This itself is a remarkable achievement, so many series get lost on the way to their destination. I can understand why this is so. I wanted it to be longer, and I was sad when the story ended. But I was happy too, because it ended so well. Having the discipline to end it while the ending is good is an essential part of storytelling.

I would be glad to share this show with my own children. It is a rousing good yarn, with astute judgements about human character, and sound moral reasoning. One of the best cartoons I have ever seen.