Good Memories of 2009, Day 7: Avatar and Avatar

Avatar & Avatar

This was a year in which I got to enjoy two creations called “Avatar,” and how often does that happen? Perhaps it’s a sign.

The first was the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender

The second, of course, was James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar, in theaters now earning a billion plus dollars.

Let’s talk the Cameron film first, saving the best for last.

Avatar is, truly, one of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen. Cameron continues to be a technical ground-breaker, and with effects technology at the point it’s currently reached, truly the time of fantasy film making has come. Cameron gives us an incredible alien world, depicted as realistically as any we’ve ever seen, and scientifically rationalizing every little bit of it. From here, there’s no reason Hollywood can’t bring us Barsoom, the Ringworld (or better yet, the Halo), Dune, the Deadlands, Newhon, Melnibone’, heck, even Azeroth (as long as we have appropriately dancing night elf ladies).

The world building and visuals are breathtaking in Avatar. The 3D works better than any previous 3D system (though I found it less effective, all in all, than that used in Coraline). This is a movie to see on the big screen while you have the chance, in 3D if you can.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this 3D grandeur and epic complexity, we find characters that are, at best, 2D, and a story about as predictably cliche’ as you can get. And I say that as someone who fully enjoyed the film. Cameron had apparently done the work to give us a narrative with more character depth and originality, then for whatever reasons boiled it all down to the Pocahontas/Ferngully/Dances With Wolves plot without variation. Maybe the decision was made because this film cost so much to make that they wanted to make sure it could be understood by anyone watching, even Sarah Palin.

All the same, I loved it. I don’t mind a stock plotline as long as it’s used in service to something that elevates it, somehow, and Avatar pushed a lot of my personal buttons very well. The world of Pandora might as well have sprung from my own inner perfect world, and seeing its inhabitants vanquish the forces of Halliburton/Monsanto/the East India Trading Company/Blackwater thrilled me. I’d jump at the chance to be a Na’Vi, so that whole projection thing was in high gear.

So, a great movie that could have been a masterpiece.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has everything that Cameron’s Avatar is missing: rich, interesting, engaging characters involved in an intricate, smart, complex narrative. It’s not just a kids’ cartoon, it’s an animated fantasy novel, and a damn good one. One of the most satisfying fantasy adventures in any medium I’ve seen in years.

The world of this Avatar is inhabited by various cultures based around manipulation of the four elements through powers called “bending.” So benders in the Fire Nation manipulate fire, benders in the Earth nation manipulate earth, and so on. The Fire Nation are the evil empire of this world, dedicated to overthrowing, or destroying, the other kingdoms and bringing their own “wise” rule to all.

Into this mix comes Aang, a young teenaged boy, who is the Avatar, the latest incarnation in a line of Avatars, individuals who master all four elements and serve to keep the balance in the world. He is hunted by the Fire Nation who want either to use his power for their own purposes, or to destroy him so he doesn’t get in their way. And he is helped by allies he meets along the way, most notably Katara and Sokka, two teen siblings from the Water tribe, who become his closest family through their adventures.

Again, this is an animated novel, not just a series of cartoons. It has a definite beginning and end, and a strong narrative through-line. The characters are fully realized and they grow and change as time goes on. They live in a way the characters in Cameron’s Avatar never even seem capable of, and the events in their lives are often moving. They’re drawn animation, and they don’t look real the way the characters in Cameron’s movie look real, but they seem far more real.

I recommend both Avatars completely, especially if you see the movie on the big screen where it belongs. But if you could see only one or the other, I’d have no hesitation in telling you to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender over Cameron’s Avatar. Unlike the billi0n dollar movie, good as it may be, this cartoon truly is a masterpiece.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a continuing narrative, and should be watched in episode order, all the way through. It’s available on DVD, and the entire first season is streamable on Netflix. A warning: there’s a live action movie being made called The Last Airbender (the name avatar for a film was taken). It’s supposed to be the first of a trilogy, adapting the cartoon’s epic story, and it may be fantastic. I hope it will be. But, Hollywood very often screws adaptations up, and this one is being helmed by M. Night Shyamalan, which I’d say might work out well, or it might be a sign of certain disaster. To be safe, I’d recommend watching the story in its original form, so if the movies do suck, they won’t ruin the experience for you.

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