People can debate all they want about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender is technically an “Anime” in the strictest sense or if M. Night Shyamalan’s horrific adaptation should have taken three films instead of trying to cram the show into a single movie, but as far as the animated series is concerned, its legacy remains rather untarnished as the best American-made series to come out of American pop culture’s fascination with Asian animation and themes. However, while the series is stellar and any set like this one that brings together all three seasons equally so, it’s hard to get too excited about a complete series set when it’s still being released on DVD and not remastered for an HD release on Blu-ray. Avatar: The Last Airbenderdeserves a Blu-ray release, so here’s hoping this set isn't the final iteration of this series that fans can expect for home video and rather just the last attempt at soaking up sales for an SD set before an HD set is released sometime in the near future.
In a world where a select group of the population can manipulate either water, fire, earth, or wind, it’s been 100 years since anybody last saw the Avatar, the human link to the spiritual world and the only one capable of manipulating (or bending) all four elements instead of the customary one. The Avatar’s absence has allowed the military ambition of the Fire Kingdom to go unchecked, and consequently they’ve conquered much of the world with only a few strongholds of the Earth and Water tribes left. The situation is dire and victory for the heavily armed Fire Kingdom seems inevitable. That is, until water tribe teens Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack De Sena) discover a young Airbender named Aang (Zach Tyler) and his pet air bison frozen in an iceberg.
Aang’s true identity as the Avatar and how he became frozen for 100 years quickly becomes known, and soon Katara and Sokka have pledged to help Aang journey across the world to learn how to master all four elements so he can fulfill his duties as the Avatar. It’s never that simple, though, and soon enough the disgraced Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) of the Fire Kingdom learns of the Avatar’s return and vows to capture him in the hope of redeeming himself to his father, thus ending his exile. As they rush to educate Aang in all four elements before a comet returns that could potentially make the firebenders unstoppable, they stumble from one conflict to another and discover that the line separating good and evil is never as clear as they expect.
While clearly intended for younger audiences, the series doesn’t oversimplify concepts like international politics out of fear that kids might get lost, and that might be what makes the series so notable. It’s not worried about starting at the beginning and instead starts in media res, with the characters making non-stop reference to events in history that have shaped the hardships of their reality. Additionally, the series never shies away from duality and characters who might seem like allies often have ulterior motives that make their aid less than ideal or with conditions that force Katara, Sokka, and Aang to reconsider it altogether. Granted, circumstances like that tend to come up a bit too much to the point where it’s comically predictable, but when it matters most it tends to be done with enough grace that the characters aren’t tainted by it.
Even as we laud the original three seasons of Avatar for their relatively strong narratives and for striking a good mix between comedy and character development, its greatest achievement is its world-building. The series kicks off with a fully formed system of international politics and countries with distinct styles and cultures (though if you’re a melon vendor, you’re pretty much screwed no matter what country you’re in), and they only get deeper and more intricate as our lead trio explores them. That depth is the reason a sequel series like The Legend of Korra is possible, and even if you weren’t a fan of the direction it took (like ending with a giant robot), it still served as a continuation of the work to make the world of Avatar more expansive.
As stated at the beginning, Avatar is a well-made animated series and this set deserves some credit for bringing all three seasons into one package, but it’s still just DVD. This series deserves an HD release on Blu-ray and until that happens this is really just a half measure.
DVD Bonus Features
Featurettes cover everything from the use of human models to guide the animation, the voice work, a Q&A with the show’s creators, and the core concepts of bending. Additionally the set includes audio commentaries, animatics, and interviews (including one with M. Night Shyamalan…because why wouldn’t fans want to hear more from him?). For the record, these are all the extras that were included in the original individual DVD releases; there doesn’t appear to be anything new created for this complete series release.
"Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Complete Series" is on sale October 6, 2015 and is rated tv-y7. Adventure, Animation, Fantasy. Directed by Ethan Spaulding, Giancarlo Volpe, Lauren MacMullen. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Aaron Ehasz, Bryan Konietzko, John O'Bryan, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, Tim Hedrick. Starring Dee Bradley Baker, Mae Whitman, Zach Tyler.