Without a doubt, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (ATLA) is one of the best animated children’s shows of the 2000s. Co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzo outdid themselves with this masterpiece. Running on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008 with three seasons, the series engaged audiences of all ages. Its influence on American pop culture and viewers everywhere remains unchallenged to this day. The show has also received countless awards and nominations from various electing bodies in the film industry, being nominated for the Outstanding Animated Program award at the Primetime Emmys in 2007 and winning the Favorite Cartoon award at the Kids Choice Awards, USA, in 2008. With three new animated theatrical films currently in development, I think it’s important to speak on why “ATLA” deserves acknowledgement. Although I didn’t have the privilege of watching the show while it was airing (I watched it in 2012 on blu-ray DVD and rewatched it in 2020 on Netflix), the show has stayed on my mind ever since I laid my eyes on it for the first time. Here’s why:
Note for readers unacquainted with the show: spoilers ahead!
In its short runtime of just 20 minutes an episode, “ATLA” manages to deliver so many valuable lessons and themes. One episode that stays close to me because of the amazing lesson that it teaches is “The Southern Raiders” (S3E16). In this episode, Katara seeks revenge for her deceased mother by locating the perpetrator who murdered her in cold blood and hurting them like she was hurt years ago. She eventually finds the culprit with the help of Zuko and is ready to kill him, but decides to not because she doesn’t want to stoop down to their level. This showed me as a young kid that vengeance is never the answer because it continues the cycle of violence. Instead, be the better person and walk away. Each installment has a significant takeaway and leaves one wanting more. I remember reflecting on every episode I saw and waiting impatiently for the upcoming installment. The biggest cliffhanger for me was definitely the ending of “The Crossroads of Destiny” (S2E20). Aang gets struck down from the sky by a lightning bolt to his back courtesy of the infamous Azula. Aang manages to escape with the help of Katara, but barely survives. The episode ends with a grave “The Earth Kingdom has fallen.” This left me at the edge of my seat and got me to rush immediately to the following season. From learning how to settle minor squabbles between enemies to learning how to forgive and forget past traumas, the show essentially raised a generation of kids through the television screen while giving them a story to remember.
The animation and composition are important to mention as well. The show contains various Asian influences, easily seen in the illustration of the four nations depicting the Inuit, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan people. These influences shed light on Asian culture, which was rare in American media at the time. The music is also a vital part of the show and made for numerous iconic moments. The song “Leaves from the Vine,” composed by Jeremy Zuckermann and Benjamin Wynn from “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” (S2E15), is one such example that made viewers, including myself, cry for the first time after hearing it. This piece has a resounding feeling of loss which was represented by a sorrowful Uncle Iroh crying over his deceased son under a sakura tree. It was performed by the late Mako Iwamatsu, the original voice actor for Uncle Iroh who sadly passed away before the show finished. This additional fact tugged on many more heart strings of viewers all around the world. Rest in peace Mako Iwamatsu.
The show also tackles darker topics, something that many viewers and I appreciate dearly. This brought a certain authenticity to “ATLA” that wasn’t present in other children’s shows at the time. The first season explicitly depicts the aftermath of the air nomad genocide and the unfairness of war. The second season touches upon censorship in the walls of Ba Sing Se and Oppa’s animal abuse. Finally, the third season focuses heavily on the destructive effects of war on people and on the landscape. Despite the maturity of these topics, “ATLA” handles them in a tasteful way, appropriate for its target audience. The topics are presented neither too grimly nor too lightheartedly, a perfect blend for children to absorb. What I find admirable is how the show didn’t underestimate the intelligence of the viewers. The creators understood this and made a show that stays in the hearts of its watchers.
The characters are also great role models for young kids. Of the main cast, each character embodies a unique persona that makes them unforgettable in the eyes of the audience. Aang is a playful and careful spirit that young viewers can easily relate to. He proves that anyone can take on the pressures of the world with a smile and be a good leader in the face of adversity. Katara is a strong and resilient force that keeps Team Avatar together. She shows viewers that people can embrace their losses and manifest them into newfound power. Sokka is a funny and resourceful leader that leads Team Avatar into the most significant battles of the show. He demonstrates that anyone can become a better version of themselves if they listen and learn from others. Toph is a headstrong and snarky character who provided much of the show’s amusing banter. She proves that great things can come in small packages (literally). Her unassuming appearance and boisterous personality made her a favorite among fans. Lastly, Zuko is a troubled and hot-tempered person who grows immensely over the course of the show. He shows that forgiveness is always possible and that forging your own path can be done if you put your mind to it. All that said, the characters harmonized so well together and created a memorable cast.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the one show I can rewatch over and over without getting tired. I remember being glued to the television screen and attempting to soak up all of the details from the phenomenal character and world building. Even as an adult now, the show’s creativity and authenticity has never ceased to amaze me. I felt seen by the show and it familiarized me with the realities of the world in a subtle way. If I had to recommend something for the average viewer to watch, I would say “ATLA” a million times over. You’ve heard it here first! If you haven’t seen “ATLA,” you definitely should!