Seven years ago, Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered on Nickelodeon and redefined what American serialized animation could do. With one of the best writing staffs of its time and some of the most spectacular animation, Avatar proved to be a very emotional and exciting experience for a children’s show, and it developed a substantial periphery demographic and devoted fanbase. I’ve mentioned my love for the show on this blog before, and I do think it is the best example of the merits of animation and is one of the best shows to have aired during the 2000s.
Now, Nickelodeon is preparing to bring is The Legend of Korra, a sequel series featuring the next Avatar in the cycle, from the same creators and writers. This is a wonderful thing. Everything we’ve seen of the series so far suggests that it will be held to the same high standard as the original show. Premiering on April 14th, the show has only one question left to answer: Can it possibly be as good as the original show?
If the premiere is any indication, the answer is – yes.
In the four years that have passed since The Last Airbender (which is now retroactively referred to as The Legend of Aang), classic, 2D animation has made great strides – Korra makes wonderful use of this advancement, evident from the opening sequence. The animation is some of the best I’ve seen this side of Miyazaki. Their panoramic of Republic City is gorgeous, and the Bending is equally impressive. Still inspired by various martial arts, Bending remains the crowning achievement of the show’s terrific animators. Their fire and water bending in particular has really become stellar – the water acts far more alive than in the previous show, for instance. One of my favorite shots is the opening shot after the title sequence – the Order of the White Lotus is walking over a hill in the South Pole as snow is falling, and they carry a lantern. The lantern’s dim orange glow illuminates the ground around them as well as the gently falling snowflakes – it’s feature film quality animation, and a wonderful note on which to open the show.
But I won’t spend this entire review gushing over the animation quality (oh my god it’s so beautiful) – let’s get to the real meat of the show. This episode is primarily establishing the setting for the series – it opens on young Korra being recognized by the White Lotus as the Avatar (with the “adorable” line, “I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!“), and then cuts (in an brilliant dissolve with Firebending – damn it, I said I’d stop talking about the animation. Shutting up about it now.) to her Firebending test, which she passes. It’s an interesting inversion of the events in the original series – Korra, unlike Aang, is quite ready to accept that she is the Avatar (“…you gotta deal with it!“) whereas Aang was devastated; Korra has mastered Water, Earth, and Firebending within the first episode whereas that very task was the bulk of the original series. The only element Korra has yet to master is Airbending – naturally, since the first season (Book 1) is titled “Air” (I’ll admit I grinned and maybe fanboy-squealed a bit when I saw that), she’ll be doing that over the course of the season.
And who better to teach her than Aang and Katara’s son (sorry, Zuko and Katara shippers), Tenzin, voiced by the always welcome J.K. Simmons. He tones down his typically manic style here, and sounds very convincing as an Airbending monk. He has an interesting relationship with a certain familiar character (spoilers, but I’ll say this: hair loops) that, while on the one hand bizarre, is also quite humorous and endearing. His three children remind me very strongly of Aang – incredibly high energy airbenders who blow air in every direction imaginable (“Look, Gran Gran, I’m a snow bender!”). Tenzin cannot stay in the South Pole, however, and has to return to Republic City, the new international capital, after staying the night. Oh, and he rides a flying bison, whom I believe is unnamed… so until proven otherwise, Appa is still around!
Korra doesn’t like that she is left in the South Pole until Tenzin is ready to teach her Airbending, and eventually that previously mentioned character consents to allow her to travel to Republic City and learn from Tenzin there. In Republic City, Korra runs afoul of the law a couple of times – the law which, in Republic City, is enforced by a squad of Metalbenders (led appropriately by Lin Bae Fong, daughter of Toph from the original series). The action sequences here are exciting, and made me realize precisely why they had Korra master all three elements before the series really kicks into gear – action with three Bending styles is so much more intense and exhilarating than a single Bending style, particularly one which has yet to be refined.
Also in Republic City, Korra encounters a person on top of a podium speaking out against Bending. This is perhaps the most intriguing scene in the premiere. Representing a group called the Equalists, this person espouses an almost Marxist anti-Bending stance, claiming that the Bending elite upper classes of Republic City make life more difficult for non-benders. The group is apparently led by a masked man known only as Amon, who appears only in a brief tag at the end of the episode, but already this group is more interesting than I had expected it to be. My only concern is that they will devolve into a simple evil group rather than a group with a cause. The Fire Nation in the original series, while all kinds of cool and intimidating (you are hearing Fire Nation music in your head now aren’t you?), was really just a group of evil mooks led by an evil man and his crazy daughter. There wasn’t much idealism behind their actions other than “WORLD DOMINATION!”, which is why I think the Equalists will make for a more interesting villain if they maintain their ideals.
Korra, as a character, is quite the opposite of Aang. She’s very headstrong and runs into situations much more rashly than did Aang. She has an incredible mastery and confidence of Bending, with the exception of Airbending of course. The White Lotus members note that she has ignored the spiritual side of Bending, which is an interesting flaw as it is not one that Aang had – from the beginning, Aang seemed to be primed for spiritual growth and understanding. Korra on the other hand seems to enjoy being the Avatar because of the cool stuff she can do. Her character growth is poised to be very different from Aang’s, and I am excited to see where she goes.
Overall, this episode was a wonderful introduction into this new series, even if most of it was one tease after another, with the promise of more to come. The only flaws I can note are the absence of companion characters like Sokka and Katara, who were established within the first episode of the original series. Korra has no such friends at this point, so I hope (and expect) that said companions will be picked up in the second episode. The pace of this new show is also a bit quicker than the original, which is welcome in a sense – it gets right to the point, after all – but by the same token is a bit dizzying. Once again, I’m sure later episodes will discard this quick pace, which is likely only used here to ensure they had time to put everything into a single, 22-minute episode.
Look forward to the premiere of The Legend of Korra with “Welcome to Republic City” (Episode 1×01) on April 14th, on Nickelodeon.
“Welcome to Republic City”: B+