"Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days; a time of peace, when the Avatar kept the balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements; only he could stop the ruthless firebenders, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.
A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe.
Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads and that the cycle was broken, but I haven't lost hope. I still believe that somehow the Avatar will return to save the world."
And so it begins.
Avatar is an epic tale set in a wondrous fantasy world besieged by a terrible war. In this world the elements themselves are controlled by people called Benders and the most powerful Bender of them all is the Avatar, whose responsibility it is to protect the world and ensure balance -- the Avatar is the only being powerful enough to oppose the Fire Nation. Each time an Avatar dies, the Avatar Spirit is reborn into the next elemental tribe in the cycle; the last, who disappeared a hundred years ago, is a young monk of the Air Nomads named Aang.
The series starts when Katara, an untrained water bender (who narrates the opening quoted above) and her brother Sokka, the last remaining warrior in the Southern Water Tribe, find an unusual iceberg with a person inside it; Aang, a young Airbender with a flying bison. Aang has no immediate memory of how he got inside it or how long he's been there, but he does gradually come forth with the knowledge that he is the Avatar. Katara and Sokka take him back to their village, which is attacked soon after by a ship of the Fire Nation Navy captained by the exiled Prince Zuko, who has been hunting the Avatar for years and was alerted to his reawakening.
Aang, who knows nothing of the war, realizes his responsibility and sets out with Katara and Sokka to master the three remaining Bending Arts and defeat the Fire Lord, chased the entire way by Zuko and his uncle, the retired General Iroh. Along the way Aang learns the impact the war has had on the world; the destruction of the Air Nomads, the enslavement of the Earth Kingdom and the retreat from society of the Water Tribes. In addition to his new travelling companions, Aang is aided by people grateful for the return of the Avatar, warriors dedicated to combating the Fire Nation and even his past lives, most notably the previous Avatar, Roku, who lead him to those who will teach him the arts of Water, Fire and Earth Bending so he can defeat the Fire Lord before it's too late.
Nickelodeon has quite a show in Avatar; the animation and setting are beautiful, the voice work is excellent, characterization strong and the story is perhaps the most compelling of any animated series currently in production -- even my beloved Justice League Unlimited. The main characters are extremely likeable, and more importantly, as the series progresses there is clear growth in the relationships among them. Perhaps most impressive is that Prince Zuko is every bit as sympathetic a character as Aang, and even as the viewer knows it would be devastating for him to accomplish his goal of capturing the Avatar and presenting him to his father, it's hard not to feel at least sorry for him, if not root for him in a way. His character growth mostly occurs through conversations with his uncle, whom one wonders how he got so mellow after leading the Fire Navy in many successful campaigns in his youth; as he tries to teach his nephew to control his temper (which got him exiled in the first place), he exudes warmth and clearly genuinely cares for his well-being.
The world is very heavily influenced by Asian culture and history; the four elements are those prominent in Chinese philosophy and myth, the spiritual aspects resemble the Asian religious traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, the four elemental societies are modelled after different Asian cultures, and, most importantly, the Bending styles are modelled after martial arts.
Nickelodeon's promotion of the show includes a series of bumpers entitled "Creating the Legend." The series included four entries on the Bending styles, hosted by Sifu Kisu, credited as the "Avatar Martial Arts Expert." In these segments, Sifu demonstrates and explains the stylistic origin for each Bending art:
Waterbending - Tai Chi
Earthbending - Hung Gar (Tiger and Crane Style) Kung Fu
Firebending - Northern Shaolin Kung Fu
Airbending - Bagua, also known as Pa Kua
As I said, the animation is beautiful, and the movements of the Benders are at the center of that, especially when Aang channels the Avatar State in times of stress; when this happens he is unconscious but in complete mastery over all the elements, possessed by the very source of the Avatar's power.
As of this writing, Book 2: Earth has just begun, and they are off to quite a start, which is good because I'd hate to think they'd run out of steam after the awe-inspiring finale of Book 1: Water. Not only has Aang made many important steps in his journey and grown as a person, Katara, Sokka and Zuko have as well, which is why the show is so powerful; the beauty of it is a good reason to start watching, but the fact that these feel like real people is what will keep you watching. Aang has studied Water- and Firebending, communed with his past lives, and more importantly has matured a great deal from the thrillseeker that emerged from the iceberg, mostly due to his having witnessed a number of depridations of the Fire Nation first- and second-hand. Katara has grown into a powerful Waterbender, achieving sufficient mastery that she is qualified to teach Aang; she may also be falling in love with him, but that is unclear. Sokka may have grown the most; despite being the strongest warrior in his Water Tribe village, he has mostly been the foil in the show's comic relief; he's grown enough that, while he may revert to the occasional goofy moment (as does Aang), he's someone who should be taken seriously. Zuko's growth has been in a different direction; he's been an extremely serious, almost fanatical soldier since his first appearance, and as the series moves forward he gradually learns about his father and the Fire Nation in general enough that his interests expand beyond simple honor and glory, even moving against the Fire Nation a couple of times. As Book 2 starts, his changes have been the most drastic, as he is now no longer simply in exile but is on the run with no chance of regaining his honor and being chased by, of all people, his sister.
The short version of this review is "If you haven't watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, do so."