Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition) Review

In the build-up to the release of next month's The Last Airbender, the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, Nickelodeon has re-released the first of three seasons (or "Books," as they are referred to on the show) of Avatar, the cartoon series the movie is based on. Specifically, the first movie in a planned trilogy is an adaptation of "Book 1: Water."

For fans who have already purchased the previous release, this Collector's Edition is basically a repackaging with the addition of an extra bonus disc. It's a good-looking package, though, shaped to look like a book in accordance to the show's concept. For the uninitiated, here's a chance to take a look at one of the best American animated shows in a long time; most likely superior in every way to the upcoming live-action film.

The story of Aang, the eponymous "Last Airbender," is one of epic legends and lores, but  this fantasy world is surprisingly easy to grasp and jump into. Perhaps because it references a lot of real-world mythologies, cultures and philosophies, particularly those of Asian cultures. The show mixes Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan influences with the inventiveness of Hayao Miyazaki to create a unique and engaging landscape. This kind of thorough world-building is something that's often overlooked in shows like this, and yet Avatar delivers in spades.

Most impressive about the show is the vastness of the design and the attention paid to the details. The world of Avatar is divided into four nations based on the four elements of Air, Water, Earth and Fire. In that order, it is known as the Avatar Cycle. The citizens of those nations have a technique of controlling their assigned element called "bending." Aang is an Airbender, but he is special because he is also the latest reincarnation of the legendary Avatar, a destined hero who can and must master all four elements in order to restore balance to the universe. The trouble is, after being accidentally frozen in a block of ice for 100 years, the 12-year-old and tragically innocent Aang wakes up to a new world torn by a war waged by the power-mad Fire Nation, who have committed genocide against the Air Nation, leaving Aang the last survivor of his race.

In Book 1, though he travels through all four nations in his adventure, the journey is primarily about Aang's learning of Waterbending, with the help of two Water Nation siblings Katara and Sokka, traveling on Aang's pet flying bison Appa. The journey is not so straight-forward, however, as they/we also learn more about the Avatar legend and our heroes' bitter pasts, as well as witnessing the havoc the Fire Nation has brought to various parts of the world.

For whatever reason, the animation industry in America tend to significantly favor comedies more than action/adventure shows (at least for television). While Avatar is definitely a family show that displays tons of lighthearted zeal, it's also not afraid to have bouts of serious arcs, treat deadly situations with integrity, and focus heavily on superbly executed fight scenes.

Adding to the depth of the show is the choice of villain in Zuko, a shamed Fire Nation prince who's exiled from his own country by his Fire Lord father, ordered to never return unless he's captured the Avatar. Despite his petulance and selfishness, Zuko is a compellingly sympathetic character who's not so easy to hate as a villain. One episode has a great moment in which a forlorn Aang tells a weakened Zuko about a Fire Nation friend he used to have a century ago, and asks if they would've been friends had it not been for the war. We yearn for Zuko to say yes, but in a show of commitment to his character, the show has him respond with a sudden attack, leaving us reeling over Aang's disappointment.

Every different culture in this world is distinct from the next. The Air Nation resembles Tibetan Buddhist monks and Airbending is based on Ba Gua kung fu; The Water Nation are like Inuits in a winterland and Waterbending looks like Tai Chi. The show never calls attention to how diverse it can be—they went so far as using culture, martial arts and calligraphy consultants to stay true to its influences—only vaguely inserting easter eggs for those familiar with the cultures represented (one episode set in a Japanese-inspired village features an eel monster the locals dubbed "The Unagi"). Even without knowing any of this, you can still sense that the show is meticulously researched, carefully stitched and obviously a labor of love from its creators.

DVD Bonus Features

Seeing how this release is just an "outer shell" that houses the original set, the features remain the same. Three short featurettes interviewing different people from the production; one for the cast, one for the Korean animators, and one for the sound designers tasked to create Avatar's otherworldly soundscape. There's also the inclusion of the Pilot with a commentary track from the show creators (odd that they chose to duplicate the episode on a bonus disc instead of just attaching a commentary track in the first disc).

The Collector's Edition isn't just a box, though. Also included is an 18-page sample from the recent Art of the Animated Series book and a bonus bonus disc made especially for this edition. It has no menus and contains only a 30-minute documentary about the creation and legacy of the show, interviewing everyone from the show creators to famed voice director Andrea Romano to M. Night Shyamalan. All in all, it's just a nice trade-up; but if you don't even have the original release, it's a must have.

Let's just hope that Nickelodeon is not going to wait around until Shyamalan makes the second movie to release the next two Books.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Complete Book 1 (Collector's Edition)" is on sale June 22, 2010 and is not rated. Action, Adventure, Animation, Martial-Arts. Directed by Various. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (creators), Aaron Ehasz. Starring Dante Basco, Jack DeSena, Mae Whitman, Mako, Zach Tyler Eisen.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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