I wish Avatar was on TV when I was a kid
I'm generally skeptical of any Western production that tries too hard to be "anime"-ish. So much utter crap has been created by cynical types trying to cash in on the popularity of a visual style without bothering to learn anything from anime storytelling.
But on the other hand, I know Avatar has a huge and dedicated online fanbase of people who are way too old to be in its target audience, so I expected it to be of some quality.
Now that I've seen the first season, I'm happy to report that I quite like it. At first I was like "Hey, this is a pretty well-done kids show that doesn't insult my intelligence", but it gets better and better as it goes along. By the time I got to the two-part Season 1 finale, The Siege of the North (cool name!) I was going "Holy Crap, This Is AWESOME!"
Now that I think about it, Avatar has more than a little in common with The Mysterious Cities of Gold, a Japanese-French co-production that was on Nickelodeon when I was about 6-9. They're both epic adventure stories about a multicultural gang of children on a journey through an exotic land under threat of hostile invasion.
It's good to see Nickelodeon can still do good, original stuff once in a while.
In my first paragraph, I called Avatar a "quasi-anime". That's because it does such a good job blending the good stuff from Eastern and Western animation traditions that it's hard to classify. As influences continue to flow back and forth, I hope we see more high-quality melting-pot stuff like this, until we can just call good cartoons good cartoons without classifying them into boxes.
Anyway, the reasons Avatar is good include:
- Way cool martial arts battles. The elemental manipulation powers which are the main fantasy element in the setting are not just used in crappy stock-footage attacks, but are organically integrated into realistic martial arts styles in all sorts of cool and creative ways. According to Wikipedia, Waterbending was based on Tai Chi movemens, Firebending on Northern Shao Lin kung fu, Earthbending on Hung Gar, and Airbending on Ba Gua. (No, I'd never heard of the last two either. Cartoons are educational!) The fights are surprisingly well-choreographed and well-animated.
- Character development. Even the incidental characters get personality, and even the filleriest of filler episodes involve some issue-driven growth for the main characters. Sokka is going from useless comic relief to brave warrior; Aang is going from a goof-off kid who just wants to ride random animals to being an ambassador of peace; Zuko going from relentless antagonist to sympathetic villian to... not sure what yet. I mean, a lot of it is fairly standard adventuring party character tropes, but it's done well.
- Culture. Westerners seem to have a hard time doing "asian"-inspired fantasy without resorting to stereotypes, exotification/fetishization, and general forehead-slapping ignorance. I'm happy to say Avatar does it right. They've got a lot of actual Asians and Asian-americans on the production staff, they get their Chinese characters right, they have a respectful attitude to the source material, and in general they did their homework. Almost every episode teaches us new things about the cultures of the places they travel through, which makes the setting come to life; each nation is a blend of imaginary bits with real-world inspiration. So for instance, the Air Nomads are sort of Tibetan, with flying buffalo; the Fire Nation is sort of Imperialist Japan, with giant steam-powered navies; the Water Tribes are sort of Inuit; etc. etc. Dealing with the beliefs and customs of each place they visit is often a major part of the episode plots. I like how each elemental nation is not a monolithic culture, but has all the variations within it that you would expect in the real world. (Seeing as how in most settings, all Dwarves are Dwarvish, and all Vulcans are Vulcan, etc... yeah.)
I wish Avatar had been on when I was in its target age range; it would have been My Most Favoritest Thing Ever. I bet the kids who are watching Avatar today will be super nostalgic about it when they get to be my age!