Nickelodeon offers up a belated valentine to anime fans with the distinctively Asian-influenced series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” A marked departure from the springy, primary colors of “SpongeBob” and feel-good antics of “Rugrats,” “Avatar” is a fresh and intriguing show that could spell a new era in animation for the network.
Already chat rooms have been aflutter in anticipation of the show from creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino. With its simple lines and stylized features, “Avatar” could emerge as the net’s latest marketing dream.
Series debuts with a special one-hour premiere before it moves to its regular half-hour timeslot Fridays at 8 p.m.
Although targeted to kids 6-11, “Avatar” asks more of its viewers than comparable toons with a complex, episodic story arc that combines drama, humor and action. Premiere episode quickly establishes a potentially story-rich mythology about a world in which the Water, Earth and Air nations are under threat by the warlike Fire Nation. Led by 14-year-old Prince Zuko, the Fire Nation is on the brink of world domination.
However, the prophesied re-emergence of the last Avatar, a mystical leader who alone can master all four elements, haunts the young prince and fuels his vicious attacks on the remaining nations. When Katara, a potential waterbender, inadvertently releases 12-year-old Aang from an icy tomb, she sets free the only person who holds the power to restore world order. But Aang, unfamiliar with the world as it is (he was frozen for 100 years) has other plans first — namely, penguin surfing.
Peppered with Zen-inspired music, the crisp and beautifully drawn show is reminiscent of work out of Studio Ghibli, often considered the Disney of the East. But there are distinctive Western influences in its execution, especially the cadence of the dialogue. And what the show lacks in spiritual influences it makes up for with the winning notion of Aang’s innocence and sense of whimsy juxtaposed in a world that has long forgotten such luxuries.