Sunday, April 15, 2012

First Impressions - Avatar: The Legend of Korra

Topping this, since the official premiere was today...

No screencaps, obviously (you can’t screencap a theoretical show, after all).  Let’s get a few of the things you might be worried about out of the way first (and yes, there are many spoilers in this post):

  • Alive: Katara
  • Dead: Aang, Sokka (definitely), everybody else (presumably)
  • Zuko’s Mother: Audience severely trolled

I’ll presume for the sake of argument that if you’re reading this you know the basic premise of Avatar: The Last Airbender and watched the first series.  I think this one will be somewhat difficult to follow at first if you haven’t, because creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko – known hereafter as “Mike and Brian” – are making that same presumption and not explaining a hell of a lot.  A lot of the humor is pretty meta, too, so without a frame of reference for why something is supposed to be funny, I suspect you’ll feel like Picard the first time he heard “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”.

As English-language TV cartoons go, the original TLA was one of the best – right there with ReBoot in my view as perhaps the very best – and the influence anime had on Mike and Brian is obvious and acknowledged.  It was a three-year series with full continuity, in which the kids grew at a realistic rate and an elaborate, strongly Asian-themed mythology was laid out.  The style was strongly Asian-themed, too, with it’s coming-of-age elements and superb soundtrack by The Track Team (who are back for Korra, delightfully).  The voice cast was an excellent mix of age-appropriate youngsters and veteran actors who did a beautiful job bringing the characters to life.  So what of the sequel?  Well, in brief, I would say so far so good – for the most part.

This one is set 70 years after the end of TLA.  Aang has passed from the world, and the new Avatar is Korra (Janet Varney) and while Aang was a lovable and gentle tween, Korra is a sharp-tongued, cocky and buff teenaged girl with a chip on her shoulder who’s already superb at bending water, fire and earth when the series finds her living with her Water Tribe family at the North Pole.  Katara lives in the same village, and Korra’s main animal buddy is a “polar bear dog” named Naga.  The job of teaching her airebending (and handling the narration) falls to Tenzin (the great J.K. Simmons), except that he can’t – his job as a Councilor in Republic City requires him to return there, and he doesn’t think it’s safe for Korra to accompany him.  Apparently there’s also only one airbending master in this world as there was in Aang’s, and Tenzin – who happens to be Aang and Katara’s son (sorry, Zutarans) is it.  So Tenzin returns to Republic City on his flying bison in the company of his pregnant wife and two daughters, Jinora (Kiernan Shipka) and Ikki (Darcy Rose Byrnes) and hyperactive son Meelo (Logan Wells).  But under the encouragement of Katara (now voiced by film legend Eva Marie Saint) Korra and Naga follow a few days later by stowing away on a ship.

Republic City is actually one of the important characters in its own right, and it’s when “Korra” gets there that we truly realize just how different this world is from the one we left.  Aang and Zuko founded the city as a beacon of equality and fraternity, but that seems to have gone wrong in recent years as enmity has arisen between the bending and non-bending population.  Republic City has very real looking technology, too, and has a rollicking 1930’s look to it – cars with running boards, gangsters, art-deco buildings – perhaps equal parts Chicago and Shanghai – but with some very alien technology too, like metalbending cops who get around in airships.  The leader of the cops is Lin Bei Fong (Mindy Sterling) who is, you guessed it, Toph’s daughter (Sokka’s, too?)  She seems singularly unimpressed by Korra’s title when the girl arrives in town and stirs up trouble and Tenzin has to bail her out.  Eventually the airbender relents and allows Korra to stay and train, but there are enemies awaiting the new Avatar, notably Amon (Steve Blum) the masked man who leads the “Equalists” who cast benders as the source of evil and inequality in Republic City, and Korra as the symbol of all their power.

In general, I think the premiere did a pretty good job of setting the stage, and captures some of the same feel that TLA did.  What it hasn’t done yet is give me a good feel for the characters.  Korra is a bit of a girl-power cliché at this point (and Varney sounds too old), though she certainly makes a thorough contrast with Aang.  Tenzin is obviously also a crucial character, and he’s also a contrast with his father – solemn, serious and stern.  Of his kids Meelo is the one cast member who most resembles Aang with his always-on personality and perpetual grin.  There are going to be many more cast members introduced, chief among them a group of peers in her own age group for Korra to hang with in Republic City.  There’s also the matter of “professional bending” which is apparently a popular sport in this world and certainly should add an interesting new element to the mix. 

First episodes are hard, and I certainly didn’t feel an immediate emotional connection to this one, but that really isn’t a fair test as it usually takes time for characters to become more than abstractions.  What I can say for sure is that the show looked great, and offered a very interesting twist on the “Avatar” universe we know and love.  As to just how effective it is in turning that into a compelling story with engaging characters, we’ll just have to wait and see.

28 comments:

  1. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh ...

    You lucky, lucky bastard. So jelly right now you wont believe it ...

    ''Sokka (definitely)''

    What, did they actually show his death?

    ''Toph’s daughter (Sokka’s, too?)''

    I'm a sorry wut.

    So a question:

    Was it fun?

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    1. Those of you industrious may find similar pleasures within your reach, if you have the desire and cleverness to find them...

      Katara specifically says Sokka is dead. I'm just guessing on Chief Bei Fong, as Toph obviously had a huge crush on Sokka, but they don't say who the Dad is. Sokka probably ended up with Sukki (I liked Yue, but hard to see how that might have worked out).

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  2. About Varney not sounding right as Korra, could it just be that she needs time to get into the role, much like how early Dante Basco as Zuko sounded very stiff and unsure?

    Oh and I'm sure you might know this already, but co-creator Bryan Konietzko (Brian) has a pretty awesome tumbler, and I figure I might as well plug it in here

    http://bryankonietzko.tumblr.com/

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    1. It could be, But Varney is 35 so it makes you wonder.

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  3. Really happy you are blogging this and Avatar has caught on with the anime community as its really a terrific series.

    It honestly took me until the Storm/Blue Spirit to realize how much I loved the original Avatar, so as far as intros go I think this was stronger than that first ep. I actually like Korra a lot. I think it was a good choice to make her so different from Aang. It's a bit early to judge her character, but if I would guess I think her flaw is act first, think later. So I am interested to see where they will go with that.

    Of course her interaction with the two guys who will probably join the cast in the 2nd ep is key. As for me at least what made the first series so special was the chemistry between the kids & Zuko/Iroh so I am hoping for those relationships in this series.

    Also I loved that Blum & Saint were in this: it's like watching my fandoms collide because besides being an anime fan, I also love Classic film. And speaking of which I got to see Eva Marie live at a TCM event in my city last week. Only found out afterwards she would be in Avatar.

    Looking forward to following your posts on this series.

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    1. Wow, Kim - you really wanted to comment here, didn't you? ;-)

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    2. LOL see I did say I was excited you were blogging Avatar. ;)

      No idea how the 3 posts happened as I only clicked once (I am going to blame it on posting through my Ipod) I was posting as I was waiting for the bus and as soon as I noticed there were 3 I lost Internet connection. Thanks for erasing them!

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  6. Korra busting out those bending when she was young made me chuckle a bit. Definitely different from Aang. Let's see how this difference drives the story.
    So far so good. Looking forward to seeing the other descendants of the original cast.

    Those Metalbenders are cool. Much better than the Dai Li who uses rocks as cuffs.

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  7. So basically you watched the leaked first episode that's still floating around the internet like me and everyone else? Can't say I blame you.

    That first moment with Korra was probably the first time I went cross-eyed from pure joy.

    KORRA FUCK YEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRR

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    1. Oh snap ... there was a leak !??! .. no wonder why OP's starting paragraph is written that way ...

      oh not hard to find ... i'll catch it on tv though .. i'm not missing this series on hd unlike last time =(

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  8. dw, the theoretical episode is about to exit to the realm of reality with the second episode THIS SATURDAY YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

    so happy you're blogging korra!

    I agree, I didn't connect much with the first episode either, but I'm just waiting for the characters that'll probably really bring out the show: Bolin and Mako. PLEASE BE IN THE SECOND EPISODE BOLIN

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    1. He almost has to be, I think.

      Yep, Saturday theory becomes reality x2. My real worry at this point is Varney, who did nothing for me as Korra in the premiere. I hope her two pals Mako and Bolin (I have high hopes for him) add some nice spark. I love JK Simmons, so Tenzin should be win, but I'm not sure how big a role he'll play going forward. Perhaps he's the Iroh of this cast?

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  9. *eyes alight at the Eve Marie Marie Saint mention * oooh it's out already! Thank you for blogging... hubby dearest :p .
    Even if I was late in catching up with Avatar it's been a while since I watched the whole original series, I need to refresh my memory about some of the secondary characters you mentioned in this post.

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    1. Well Waifu, the only one from TOS who seems to be alive is Katara, so I wouldn't sweat the others too much. Just make sure you remember the overall story.

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    2. I actually blushed. What a fragile old maiden I am, alas.
      I remember the overall story (and I remember being a happy MaiKo shipper btw)... time to hunt for the leak. Wish me luck, would you? *blows kiss from fingertips, salutes*

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    3. Watched it!
      Soo... it wasn't bad at all. Korra's voice didn't do wonders for me but I was fearing worse. I do like the city design as well, with its East-meets-West retro feel.
      Katara and Aang's grandchildren look quite an adorable and lively bunch.
      Character-wise Korra will be fleshed out nicely I hope. I've been spoilt in terms of female warriors by some excellent series in the past...my bar is pretty high. Will they manage to show her as a girl and not as a man with boobs? Dundundundun.
      Also, now I understand your mention of the trolling about Zuko's mother. Aw. Indeed.
      One visual reference is bugging me: the Equalist's leader mask. Either is a callback to the original series (I can't remember when/who/what though ) or is a nod to something extra-franchise. I know I've seen it already before though.

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    4. its a call back to the blue ghost (spirit?) a disguise that zuko used for a short period of time

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  10. Nice to see Avatar being blogged. I agree that Korra didn't leave too much of an impression on me, but the same has to be said for Aang when I saw the first series.

    For me, it's the plot that I'm really looking to. I see a lot of potential conflict due to Korra's naivety. Using Republic City as the main setting really hit home on how much time has passed since the first series. All the "new technology" really makes the audience feel like a farmer-boy's first time into the city.

    Once again, I am drooling at the animation/ choreography of the bending. That was the one thing I liked most about Avatar; the incorporation of real martial arts into element bending.

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  11. Oh good, so you've seen it too. First episode is always dedicated to establish the setting and characters, rest of the episodes used to develop from what we've got. Korra has the benefit of being a sequel, so there's little to explain and introduce which means we can get through the 12-episode-long first season pretty quick. I'm sure we'll get more of what we desire on Saturday.

    I'm pretty sure that part of the impact was downplayed by the fact that lots of these introductory scenes have been circulating for some time. Once the fresh material comes, I'm sure I'll gain a quick attachment to this series. Worst that could happen is severe hype backlash from the fans, but Mike and Bryan listen to the fandom and know what they want and expect. I'm excited for it.

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  12. I find it interesting that no one has mentioned the whole *"Leaking" thing that is going on with the series, this is obviously a VERY SMART marketting ploy, and I wouldn't be surprised if mike and brian were making tons of money from ad revenue putting the eps on streaming sites AND generating a HUGE buzz for the show before its "official" release. . .

    Very smart Mike, and Brian, Very smart...dare I say. . .Genious?

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  13. hold up

    ' Lin Bei Fong (Mindy Sterling) who is, you guessed it, Toph’s daughter (Sokka’s, too?) '

    Sokka was with Suki, not Toph! did I read it wrong?

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    1. Sokka was never officially "with" anybody and Toph had a crush on him, but that was more a joke on my part - not likely they'd end up together.

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    2. Did you miss the part where Sokka and Suki had sex? That seemed pretty "with" to me....

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    3. @Guardian Enzo - Oh okay, got it.

      @Helen - Im going to ignore you!

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    4. I didn't miss it, because it didn't indisputably happen. That's certainly one interpretation.

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