Judge Adam Arseneau is an Earbender. He talks a lot.
Our review of Avatar: The Last Airbender: Book 2: Earth (Volume 1), published February 21st, 2007, is also available.
Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Four nations. One war-torn world.
The critically acclaimed Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender returns to shelves in a re-released fancy Collector's Edition package, a release targeted specifically to detract attention away from the Theatrical Adaptation That Shall Not Be Named. Best we forget all about that affair and concentrate on what people love. But is this Collector's Edition just a fancy re-packaging of an old box set?
Facts of the Case
For generations, the four great nations—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—lived in peace and harmony. Each nation possesses skilled magicians called "benders" who can harness their respective elements, but there was one who could master them all: the Avatar, a reincarnated being born into the great nations and provides balance and stability to the world. Then one day, the Avatar vanished.
Now, one hundred years later, the world is in peril and disarray. The Fire Nation has invaded the other great nations, destroying the Air Nation and enslaving the rest of the world. The legend of the Avatar is now the stuff of legend and myth…until two young Water Nation teenagers accidentally uncover a twelve-year-old encased in ice at the bottom of the ocean—the last Airbender, Aang.
Aang is reborn into a world of conflict. All he wants to do is be a kid, but his destiny has followed him for the last hundred years. He must learn to master the elements of Earth, Fire, and Water in order to claim his destiny as the Avatar, and save the world from the ravages of the Fire Nation!
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition) contains all twenty episodes from the first season, spread across six discs:
• "Unaired Pilot"
If you have been living under a rock buried underground for the last five years, it is theoretically possible that you have no idea about the cultural phenomenon that is Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is unlikely though. Internet access is pretty lousy underground, so odds are you wouldn't be reading this review. The definition of a crossover hit, Avatar proved a compelling mix of Eastern philosophy, magic and fantasy, martial arts, and adventure irresistible to parent and child alike. I know many more adults than I do young kids these days, but the praise for this show is universal.
Right out of the gates, Avatar: The Last Airbender grabs viewers with its premise—a hundred years of repressed destiny, childhood adventure, and a world in danger from an evil army. The scope of the universe envisioned by this humble Nick cartoon is surprisingly deep, as if adapted from a rich set of beloved novels. Every element of the show is impeccably researched and detailed: the costume designs influenced from real-life historic cultures, the choreographed fight sequences adapted from real-life martial arts. Avatar: The Last Airbender is epic in scope and style, a triumph of original programming and innovation that even a wave of action figures and botched theatrical adaptations cannot dampen. Wait, I said I wasn't going to mention the Movie. Darn it.
In these first episodes, the first Book in a three-part series, we meet the Last Airbender, a young kid named Aang. He is infectiously cheerful, upbeat, and childlike, but wrestles with a secret weight, a burden of destiny and purpose he fights to avoid. In short, he's a kid with issues. We meet another kid, Prince Zuko; an angry, misanthropic teen both angry towards and desperate to please his father—more issues. They may be cartoons, but Avatar: The Last Airbender brings its characters together with such honest enthusiasm that they feel amazingly well-developed and realistic; Aang struggles with the growing realization that maturity will change life as he knows it, while Zuko wrestles for the elusive approval of a distant and dismissive father figure. For a cartoon, this is a surprisingly detailed and accurate account of pre-teen and teenage life, down to the flying buffalo.
What I love most about Avatar is the balance between adult and children's themes, a delicate and svelte blending of gleeful adventure and sophisticated ruminations about destiny and spirituality unsurpassed by any other show in recent memory. So many cartoons try to balance these two contradictory forces and end up being awkward for all involved, but not so here. As the plot unfolds into Aang's past and his ongoing training of the Elements, the balance between mature themes and goofy adventure is infectiously delightful. The plot gets surprisingly dark and moody, but never depressingly so. A few good bodily fluid jokes here and there work wonders for levity.
But enough gushing; odds are, you're a fan, and you're here to see if this set is worth the upgrade. Sad to say, but from a technical perspective, this set is identical to the previous 2006 release, Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1, right down to the packaging—more on that later. The transfer is a puzzle of admirable elements and digital quirks, difficult to critique. Colors are vibrant and pop pleasantly from the screen, a sophisticated play of tones and palates that is delightful to behold. On the negative, there is a high amount of noise, tearing, haloing, and compression artifacts easily discernable throughout the entire presentation. The image is clean and colorful, but there are too many bizarre inconsistencies to give it top grades. Audio comes in a simple stereo presentation with respectable bass response, bright clarity and clear dialogue for the superb voice acting. A show this action-packed cries out for a full surround treatment, but stereo will have to do.
Extras include audio commentary tracks on the pilot episode, as well as episodes 17-20 with cast and crew, three featurettes ("Kung Fu," "The Voices of Avatar" and a behind-the-scenes look), three making-of featurettes ("From Real Life to Animation," "Inside the Korean Animation Studio," "Inside the Sound Studios"), an "Ask the Creators" featurette and an animatic of episode 15—all of which is identical to the previous release. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition) also contains two new features, discussed below.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Here's the problem: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition) is literally a repackaging of the previously available Complete Book 1, and I mean literally. Nickelodeon just took the 2006 retail product, shrink-wrapped and all, and threw it into a new cardboard sleeve, then shrink-wrapped the whole affair a second time. This is borderline sneaky, so buyer beware, especially if you're looking for an upgrade.
On the plus side, Nickelodeon did throw in a few carrots. This newly rebranded Collector's Edition comes bundled with two new additions: a seventh disc in a cardboard sleeve containing an all-new 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary with creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, as well as a 48-page booklet, "The Art of the Animated Series" full of colorful hand-drawn sketches and character designs. These are nice additions, especially the documentary, but themselves do not justify a double-dip for owners of Complete Book 1.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a modern American classic of animation, one of the few genuine, original, and worthwhile intellectual properties this decade. One of these days, we'll see a DVD release to do the franchise the justice it deserves. Sadly, this isn't it. Nickelodeon missed the boat on this one. They had a great opportunity to release something new, but ended up rebranding old product, tossing in a documentary and a booklet and calling it a day.
Still, if you've somehow missed adding Avatar: The Last Airbender to your collection—and shame on you!—this is a very reasonably priced way to do it. Plus, you get the extra book and a documentary to boot.
Personally, I'll be waiting for the inevitable Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
• Episode Commentaries
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