So I’m watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, now that there’s only one agonizing wait for the next part left. I just finished the first season and have some thoughts running around.
General reactions: Good show, lots of fun, excellent story and animation and music, interesting characters, going to watch this again.
I find my specific responses a bit more conflicted. Part of this is undoubtedly because I’ve gotten used to the way anime does it. According to that tradition, something with characters this old should be taking more time to work out the knotty emotional and social issues that come up. Avatar has a tendency to present Large Sociocultural Issue and resolve it prettily in twenty-two minutes. It reminds me a lot of Digimon or Pokemon, that way, which are directed at much younger children overall.
Remembering back to my Jem and She-ra days, however, I recall that, yes, this is how US cartoons do it, so I generally just ride with the occasional moments of “wait… that was an awfully quick life-altering epiphany”.
The other thing that trips me up, unfortunately, seems to be endemic to US cartoons, and that’s the voice acting. A few of the characters have VAs that hit their marks excellently from the start: Zuko (Basco) and Sokka (DeSena) are two of those. Katara (Whitman) improves significantly as the season goes on and her character picks up steam. Alas almost all the other characters suffer from That Problem.
You know. That problem. The one where you listen and think “s/he’s not acting; s/he’s just reading”.
This has, to the best of my recollection, always been a problem in US animation, sometimes even at the big budget feature film level. It doesn’t entirely surprise me; cartoon VA has far less cachet and visibility in this country than almost any other form of acting. And, of course, without concentrated practice it’s really hard to get any kind of expression into voice alone without the somatic feedback of motion and blocking. US actors don’t generally specialize in voice acting primarily. The result, alas, is that a whole lot of VAs sound exactly like stage actors transplanted to TV minus the cameras. They’ve got beautiful diction and enunciation which, um, on a cartoon? Sounds like a kindergarten teacher reading aloud for story hour.
I know that I’ve been spoiled by anime. Animation has a broader viewer base in Japan, filling in both children’s programming and some of the soap-opera slot, with historical drama tossed in around the edges. On top of that, seiyuu are corporately groomed to be visible, to be idol-like. Accordingly, voice acting is a viable primary career, there, and a demanding one at that. I’m now used to actors who have been trained to get convincing expression into voice alone, to dramatize freely, to grunt and groan with absolute conviction. Wherefore I tend to wince when a lot of the Avatar characters open their mouths, especially the adult characters.
This is not to say Avatar isn’t excellent. It is. Nothing less could get me to keep watching, despite the background wincing. I especially like the way the writers open up the romantic field wide, offering lots of possibilities but no sureties. I love that kind of thing, even if it does tend to bring the rabid shippers out to each defend their personal preferred subtext.
So onward to Season Two!