News

5 Ways Avatar: The Last Airbender Revolutionized Epic Fantasy in Animation

Fifteen years after it premiered, the show remains as charming, thrilling, and influential as ever.

by | February 21, 2020 | Comments

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)
(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Before How To Train Your Dragon, before Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, there was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon premiered a show 15 years ago that was unlike anything they (or audiences) had seen before. Taking the serialized storytelling of anime shows as well as epic world-building and lore from big film franchises of the time like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the result was a show with epic action, a rich mythology, and a story that still resonates to this day.

Now that Netflix and Nickelodeon have announced a live-action remake of the show, and to celebrate its 15th anniversary on February 21, Rotten Tomatoes spoke with animator and director Giancarlo Volpe about his work on Avatar: The Last Airbender. The director reflected on what made the show so special, and what advice he’d give show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko on their new adaptation.


1. AVATAR FEATURES RICH WORLD-BUILDING


“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days…” so begins the first episode of the show, with an opening monologue that sets up the world of the show and its different cultures, as well as the conflict and the stakes at hand. Though the show only lasted three seasons, Avatar introduced us to a world full of history and lore, all without the need for overt exposition.

“You’d be surprised how little can set people off in the right direction,” Volpe told Rotten Tomatoes. “Just contrasting the air nomads, who have elaborate temples that are difficult to reach unless you can almost fly, with the water tribes that are primarily at the Northern and Southern poles of the planet surrounded by water and ice. Just the little things already make people’s imaginations soar.”

Indeed, the show feels more in line with something like Star Wars, which introduced us to alien creatures, technology, and history either visually or in passing conversation (like Luke name-dropping the Clone Wars without further explanation). In the first episode, we instantly feel that this is a world both familiar and completely different than our own. When we meet two of our main characters, siblings Sokka and Katara are out fishing. Katara uses some magical abilities that her brother refers to as “an ancient art unique to our culture.”

Their village closely resembles traditional Inuit culture, just like the other nations resemble real cultures like ancient China, imperial Japan, and Tibetan Buddhists, yet we also see things like a “tiger seal” or a group of “otter penguins” which are exactly what you imagine. The show introduces us to past wars, kings, kingdoms and legends all via conversation or subtle visual cues, making its world feel lived-in. Even if you probably won’t be able to write a history book about the world of Avatar like you would Middle-Earth, you get a sense that a lot more is happening on the world than what our characters are going through.


2. THE LAST AIRBENDER’S STORY FOR KIDS GETS DARK

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)
(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Even though it was primarily aimed at kids, played with juvenile humor, and had a Y-7 rating, Avatar wasn’t afraid to explore some dark subjects. From the opening monologue we know that the world of the show has been involved in a war for 100 years, but by episode 3 we learn the serious consequence of that war.

“The air benders were wiped out while Aang was frozen for a hundred years,” Volpe explained. “We basically dealt with a Holocaust in our third episode. And we always had to do it in a way that made it appropriate for the Nickelodeon channel and brand. We saw how they handled that kind of subject matter in anime and figured out how to tell those stories in an accessible way. It became more about how the characters react to it, more than the thing itself. We don’t explicitly say the word genocide, but we see Aang’s pain at seeing his old friend dead, and we can imagine the rest.”

Avatar does deal with heavy themes such as war crimes, class division and corporal punishment, but it’s always through the eyes of its young cast. With this, the show doesn’t have to explicitly tell us anything, but show enough of a hint that older audiences know the gravitas of what’s going on, while younger audiences understand how the characters feel about what’s going on. They may not be able to express that there is a puppet government in the Earth Kingdom, but they know the King isn’t the one in power, because our characters seem confused when the king isn’t aware of the war outside his walls. They may not know what executions are, but they know that the water benders the Fire Nation captured never returned home.


3. AVATAR FEATURES ACTION WORTHY OF A BLOCKBUSTER FILM


Even if we had seen action cartoons before Avatar, none had its eye for action or sense of scope. In just 3 seasons we got hand-to-hand combat that rivaled classic kung-fu movies, and large-scale battles that rivaled big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Each of the four nations had their own unique style of bending, inspired by real martial arts, making the fight scenes look fluid and grounded in reality. The show creators also insisted on animating the show as if it was live action.

“I was not used to drawing stuff in all these crazy angles,” Volpe told us. “But Bryan [Konietzko] would ask us to use a wide-angle lens to make it feel cinematic.”

By season 3 the show included full-scale invasions with dozens of war balloons, tanks and fighters that brought audiences to the middle of a battleground. The production team took some lessons from watching anime in learning how to do big battle scenes.

“We had ways we could cheat it so that it implies Lord of the Rings–style battling, but you’re not killing yourself doing that,” Volpe said. “But what works in your favor is that you care about who wins, so as long as we point the camera at that person the show feels more satisfying that simply watching 800 tiny fire benders from above.”


4. THE SHOW’S CHARACTERS GROW UP WITH THE AUDIENCE


Just like live-action shows, the vast majority of cartoons were episodic, meaning each episode could stand on its own so that if you missed an episode you could still understand everything. Though Avatar still has fairly standalone episodes, the writers still had a clear path in mind, and all the actions taken by the characters have dire consequences.

This is done mostly through character arcs, as we see Aang, Katara, and Sokka grow up and mature through the show’s run, as does the villain, Zuko. As they travel the world to find a way to end their war, Aang finally accepts his responsibility as Avatar, Katara learns to cope with her trauma and forgive the Fire Nation for taking her mother away from her, and even Sokka takes more of a leadership role.

The show’s greatest feat, however, was its treatment of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, and how he went from villain to hero. During the span of its three seasons, we saw Zuko struggle with his legacy and what he thought was his duty. We learned of his complicated past and the events that led to him becoming a reluctant villain, and even see him confront the sins of his past and his nation by meeting those who were victimized by the war. This all serves to make Zuko’s struggle to become good all the more poignant, as audiences see him consider and even attempt at turning sides several times, so that when he finally follows through and decides to help the Avatar, the audience knows he earned forgiveness.

“I remember there was a debate when we made season 2,” Volpe explained. “The writers considered turning Zuko at the end of that season, but then it felt like it was too early, and it would actually hurt more if he messed up and took longer.”


5. AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER HAD A PERFECT ENDING

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)
(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Because of its serialization, there had to come a point when Avatar would end. Where most other contemporary cartoons would simply run its course with an episode that resembled any other, Avatar was building up to an epic finale since its first handful of episodes. We knew Aang would have to face and defeat the Fire Lord because otherwise he would take over the world and enslave everyone, we knew the show couldn’t end before and it couldn’t really continue past it, so the audience knew they’d have to prepare to say goodbye.

And what a finale it was, structured as a two-hour movie, Avatar tied up loose ends, paid off character arcs and relationships, and deepened the mythology, culminating in Aang fulfilling his destiny and bringing balance back to the world in one of the most epic fights ever produced in any medium.

It also proved to be a very influential finale, as Avatar: The Last Airbender continues to inspire changes in what wee think of as children’s animation.

“What I saw after Avatar was a number of shows that were recruiting me that wanted more of what we did on the show, usually when it came to the fighting styles of that show,” Volpe said. “Likewise, our approach to serialization, doing standalone episodes that still build a coherent and linear story, is a request I hear to this day. Streaming works incredibly well with this, because you’re much more likely to want to watch the next episode if the story is serialized. There definitely seems to be a demand for something more like Avatar, it changed the type of jobs I was getting after it wrapped up, going from King of the Hill–style comedies to things like Star Wars.”

Of course, though the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender may be over, Netflix decided it wasn’t done with Aang and his friends and announced last year that original creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko will return to make a live-action adaptation of the show.

Volpe had a piece of advice for the remake: “I think what’s interesting is figuring out who the target demographic is for the live-action show. Are they catering to the next wave of children or the 30-year-olds who watched the show when they were 15 or 20? If so, it could give them some artistic license to age it up. It’s an intriguing question to ponder.”

Tag Cloud

supernatural Premiere Dates The Witch Film dc Disney Channel E3 tv talk Hallmark TIFF 2016 green book comedies Amazon Prime Black Mirror Animation strong female leads Horror Country El Rey political drama Superheroe true crime Universal Hallmark Christmas movies Ghostbusters Holidays harry potter Certified Fresh Sundance Now police drama BBC One game of thrones BET Awards comiccon FX Vudu vampires GIFs TBS reboot black ESPN criterion animated Countdown independent Year in Review Comic Book Set visit documentary Family Disney Plus Box Office Musicals MSNBC movie psycho San Diego Comic-Con revenge dramedy romantic comedy witnail Interview Quiz comics reviews Apple crossover versus Endgame films elevated horror unscripted Grammys Warner Bros. cults die hard Winners Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Cannes halloween tv comic IFC christmas movies 2017 National Geographic cartoon concert Paramount VH1 Mary poppins CMT Summer Biopics Song of Ice and Fire Mystery 72 Emmy Awards mutant IFC Films Ellie Kemper Esquire Super Bowl Trophy Talk AMC Freeform television 007 zombies Amazon Studios Binge Guide Disney+ Disney Plus Tarantino twilight satire football NYCC TV cooking batman Syfy Drama name the review Mindy Kaling HBO binge documentaries classics video on demand venice Elton John Walt Disney Pictures The Purge Music Comedy best Sundance zero dark thirty golden globes toy story french crime Reality science fiction RT21 USA Network spanish Chernobyl Pop Pride Month Disney The CW GLAAD blaxploitation Marvel Studios DC Comics RT History latino Comics on TV LGBT Funimation VICE Opinion Star Wars stand-up comedy The Academy Kids & Family Red Carpet south america discovery casting Sneak Peek period drama Shudder Nat Geo war doctor who Western Nominations mission: impossible Columbia Pictures Martial Arts canceled Film Festival The Arrangement medical drama 4/20 TCA YA Pixar universal monsters Video Games what to watch cancelled TV shows WGN WarnerMedia breaking bad australia all-time worst movies PBS natural history sitcom cinemax FOX E! movies Watching Series serial killer remakes Winter TV Pop TV adventure Hear Us Out Showtime cars 45 Lifetime Christmas movies emmy awards dark FX on Hulu toronto streaming NBC psychological thriller TV renewals anthology directors 20th Century Fox Trivia History sag awards hist 24 frames Comedy Central robots a nightmare on elm street Extras composers finale Toys canceled TV shows nature indie YouTube Turner Classic Movies screen actors guild Lifetime TCA Awards nfl TCA Winter 2020 Pirates BBC Captain marvel A24 historical drama cops Sci-Fi Rock cats Apple TV Plus japanese sports Acorn TV Logo Paramount Network foreign critics indiana jones Heroines Trailer 2018 werewolf Cosplay laika james bond diversity technology crime thriller rotten Brie Larson fast and furious worst DC Universe cancelled TV series ABC Family GoT Shondaland Teen franchise Holiday slashers rt archives boxoffice Marvel MCU HBO Go Women's History Month Academy Awards Amazon cancelled television X-Men Dark Horse Comics First Reviews Netflix Discovery Channel Television Critics Association Adult Swim richard e. Grant quibi Pet Sematary SXSW Reality Competition Sony Pictures award winner child's play thriller hollywood anime festival CNN Classic Film Arrowverse CBS Amazon Prime Video Mary Tyler Moore Black History Month First Look talk show Hulu Starz Rocketman Peacock Spring TV Schedule scary movies Oscars Spike game show parents BBC America Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Best and Worst miniseries spanish language American Society of Cinematographers stop motion romance TCA 2017 Mudbound Epix BET OneApp free movies Crackle sequels Musical Lucasfilm news Tumblr Emmy Nominations Character Guide Fall TV hispanic festivals Valentine's Day Apple TV+ LGBTQ Fox News ratings video screenings chucky Photos DGA SundanceTV Spectrum Originals theme song VOD Awards Tour President facebook Disney streaming service Britbox Cartoon Network Netflix Christmas movies Superheroes Travel Channel Fox Searchlight rotten movies we love superhero USA halloween nbcuniversal Stephen King jamie lee curtis 21st Century Fox DirecTV biography Tubi deadpool travel docudrama Crunchyroll 71st Emmy Awards dragons Polls and Games spain Avengers Calendar cancelled Ovation Masterpiece space Marathons Rom-Com comic books APB blockbuster stoner YouTube Red joker obituary dogs ID social media dceu Baby Yoda ghosts ABC Podcast Turner HBO Max SDCC Bravo based on movie New York Comic Con renewed TV shows singing competition scorecard Awards Fantasy spider-man Emmys Action TCM Election Tomatazos PaleyFest italian crime drama TNT DC streaming service aliens zombie 2019 Christmas OWN FXX Rocky BAFTA Mary Poppins Returns adaptation TLC justice league Food Network disaster CW Seed Television Academy kids series children's TV Thanksgiving Anna Paquin YouTube Premium spy thriller mockumentary Writers Guild of America The Walking Dead TV Land Lionsgate transformers book ITV politics PlayStation Sundance TV Infographic Star Trek 2015 A&E MTV teaser 2020 sequel CBS All Access Creative Arts Emmys archives Nickelodeon asian-american TruTV See It Skip It Marvel Television spinoff