Avatar: The Last Airbender is unlike any of the genres it’s shoved into. It has an art style and formula that doesn’t quite fit into your typical anime, but it has intense world-building and depth not really found in any Nickelodeon program. However, none of that really matters, as Avatar doesn’t belong within any genre or label. It makes its own path as an all-encompassing genre-bridging odyssey, and one of the best in all of animation.
Avatar’s structure is one of its most defining features, but while a bit divisive, it’s used so brilliantly. Typically an anime show breaks itself into multiple story arcs. Where a story is told over multiple episodes with unique villains and characters, with multiple existing within a series, and creating a narrative that’s able to be continued whenever the creator pleases. Avatar on the other hand, is told as one concise arc, lacking any fat or fluff. The main goal is detailed very early on in the adventure, and most story beats are taken in the direction of getting closer to that finish line.
However, being a cartoon, Avatar also spends time taking a more serialised approach, where earlier episodes can be watched without much context. Not all of them hit the sweet spot, but the show quickly finds its footing and charges full steam ahead soon after. Usually, these one-off detours would be considered filler, but in Avatar’s case, it’s breathing room, or generous amounts of time being given to exploring the world’s mysteries and developing the shows beloved characters. When the action picks up, the stakes have risen immensely and the already riveting story has been given emotional weight and suspense.
Characters create a dynamic group that continuously take the show to new levels. Each one is riddled with relatable problems and even though Aang’s journey is the focus, every character faces their own destiny learning about themselves and developing along the way. Each character also gets enough attention to the point where each one builds a foil based relationship with the next. This is also credit to the iconic performances delivered by an outstanding cast of voice actors that continue to help increase the immersion, with each episode gripping you into their awe-inspiring world.
At the very core of Avatar: The Last Airbender is its elemental bending. Typically magic systems in shows or especially cartoons can be difficult to write, opening the way for numerous inconsistencies and complications. However, Avatar’s is executed almost perfectly. It’s extremely simple but leaves a generous amount of room for creativity and wonder. It then uses this as a base foundation to build an incredibly interesting world, where bending shapes cities, defines different cultures, and isn’t just used as a weapon to fight bad guys.
The setting also gets a helping hand from the ambitious animation style. Around every corner are scenic landscapes and backgrounds with the highest attention to detail imaginable. For example, each region’s cities and buildings resemble a form of East Asian architecture. By the middle of the show, the cast of characters embrace colour theory like no other. Now, it’s not perfect, and not every close-up face shot is given the greatest detail, and you can often times tell that you’re watching a cartoon from 2005.
However, leaning into its cartoon roots keeps it far away from its anime influencers and the stereotypes that come from that genre, so single sword slices followed by a slash through a black screen are nowhere to be found. In fact, Avatar will often times keep both characters on screen for full fistfights, or have epic displays of elements flying around the screen colliding with each other. And it’d be a shame not to give a shout out to the often simplistic, but beautiful and calming soundtrack present at all times. One second it strikes your heart, the next it gets your blood pumping for an intense showdown.
As an all-encompassing show, some of its elements may naturally not hit with all audiences. While mature and adult themes are almost always present, some of its goofy slapstick humour, moral lessons, or childhood romance may simply not appeal to 20-year-olds. It did air on Nickelodeon after all. However, for the most part, it does a pretty great job achieving balance, and for every joke that may not land, remember to just take a look at the level of storytelling present. You’re not gonna find that in SpongeBob.
Avatar is a magical show that should not be ignored. It takes the best from every genre and creates a product of its own. It sets out to tell a concise, compact, and consistent story and in three seasons does exactly that with flying colours. It strays far from the chains and cancer that pollute its inspired mediums and continues to hold up more than 10 years later.