Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender returns to DVD today in a sleek complete series set. Comprising sixteen discs and all sixty-one episodes, it's the perfect for those who missed the earlier volume or season releases.
The show itself, set in a world where martial art forms control the elements, is impressive in its sophistication. It can nimbly jump between massive battles of ships or tanks to a complete joke fest to a five-minute short about one character's grief over his dead son. Though the series starts with a focus on Aang, a young boy with the potential to master all four of the elemental control forms — known as bending — it quickly establishes a large and varied cast of characters who aid the program's shifting tones.
Sokka, Zuko and Uncle Iroh are but a few of the characters who not only populate the world, but grow and change as the series develops. Sokka and Iroh are initially presented as comic relief, but receive a surprising about of depth. Zuko's growth as a character from a one-note villain to a richly textured but confused young man is astounding.
By its third season, the world is expansive enough to feature an army composed of guest characters from previous episodes. It also makes its most compelling narrative leaps with one major character switching loyalties, Aang facing his toughest decisions and deep explorations of the characters' traumatic pasts. A handful of episodes break format, like one told entirely from the point of view of the villains while on a brief vacation and an ingenious series recap told via an in-universe stage play that both lampoons and honors the work done up to that point.
The writing is backed by excellent animation. Incorporating anime techniques and grammar, the characters have a tremendous range of expression. The series also boasts some of the best action choreography ever animated for TV. Fights are thrilling and the use of the elements is powerful. Some scenes may recall the work of Hayao Miyazaki, a clear influence on the production. But as opposed to a straight homage, Avatar builds on his principles and makes it work on a television budget.
Voice performances are also top notch, from Mae Whitman's Katara to guests like Ron Pearlman and Jason Issacs. Tying it all together is the voice of Aang: Zach Tyler. He brings child-like delight and a mature intensity depending on the story requirements. His voice never grates, even when the material intends for him to be a particularly annoying brat. Special mention should be made of both Mako and Greg Baldwin as Uncle Iroh. Both bring serenity and an occasional hedonistic streak to the performance and Baldwin thrives in the unenviable position of replacing Mako after his untimely death. Also, Dee Bradley Baker performs a host of additional voices, but excels as the voices of both Appa and Momo, animal companions to Aang and characters strong enough in their own rights to carry episodes.
The DVD release is backed with a number of special features on each disc and a bonus disc for each season. The material varies in length and scope, respecting the age range of the audience. First season special features tend to skew toward the younger set with featurettes explaining the basics of animation, voice acting and martial arts. Audio commentaries on key episodes from creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and other members of the crew, are intended for older viewers and offer a deeper look at the series.
One featurette on the season two bonus disc is rather curious in hindsight. Interview with Creators and M. Night Shyamalan sees DiMartino and Konietzko chatting with The Last Airbender director Shyamalan about the then-upcoming film. It appears to have been filmed before Shyamalan even completed the script and all three are quite excited about the project. It's interesting to hear what Shyamalan hoped the film would be. He even clearly states an expectation to work "for the next six years" on a complete trilogy.
While not a replacement for those who already own the series via previous releases, Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Complete Series is great for those who came late to the party via friends, disastrous screenings of the Shyamalan film or the sequel series The Legend of Korra. It is a fantastic series that is definitely worth owning and a great example of what animation can be with care, craft and quality.