The Legend of Korra won’t be gracing televisions until April 14th, but I was lucky enough to watch the first episode a little early. It’s a strange thing, watching something you’ve anticipated for a long time, especially when you weren’t expecting to see it so soon. It’s a situation in which your hopes will either be fulfilled or let down, and you don’t know which one it’ll be until it’s over.
There was so much hype behind Legend of Korra that it would be easy for its first episode to be a disappointment. It’s the follow-up to one of the best American cartoons I’ve ever seen, which means the standards I’m holding it to are ridiculously high. For me, Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t really start to show its potential until a ways into its first season, and if Korra had gotten off to a similarly slow start, I would’ve been pretty bummed.
Thankfully, The Legend of Korra is everything I hoped it might be and more. Its debut episode made me laugh, made me a little bit teary-eyed, and left me excited for what’s to come. The episode was only around 23 minutes, but it managed to showcase a lot of what the show has to offer, even if we haven’t seen many of the regular cast members yet. I already feel like I have a strong understanding of Korra herself, of her Air-bending trainer, Tenzin (the youngest son of Aang and Katara), and of how the Avatar universe has changed in the 70 or so years since we’ve left it.
One of the things that’s going to be most jarring for longtime fans is seeing the way the Avatar universe has transformed. People now drive cars. They listen to radios. It’s a lot of get used to, but it makes sense. Our own industrial revolution happened at a neckbreaking pace, and I’m pretty psyched to see a fantasy take on the 1920′s. Republic City is a fantastical take on old-time New York City, with a statue of Aang himself taking the place of the Statue of Liberty.
There’s plenty here that’s specifically for fans of the original series, from frustrating yet hilarious lines about Zuko’s mom to the re-appearance of characters like Katara. We even see the daughter of Toph, which begs the question- what guy could possibly have been man enough for Toph?
But the show doesn’t get overly entrenched in its own mythology, and even offers cursory explanations for the folks who are using this show as a jumping on point. As long as you know the basics of the universe, like what bending and the Avatar are, the show is perfectly accessible. Avatar is a show I’d urge everyone to watch, but 61 episodes is a pretty big commitment. I hope this show is able to serve as an entry point to anyone who was interested in the original series, but never took the time to watch it.
So much of what I loved about Avatar is on display here. The goofy sense of humor, the terrifically choreographed fight scenes, the detailed facial expressions, the smart writing and incredible world building.But the world is now a very different place, allowing writers to explore things previously left untouched. The Hundred Years War has ended, and Aang has built his utopia, but Republic City is troubled in a number of ways. As the world has recovered from the war, it’s developed a sort of caste system, with non-benders at the bottom. We see open hostility from non-benders about the privileges those with power receive. While it appears that most of the people in power are decent, the city is rife with corruption, and the police can only do so much.
By the same token, Korra is the Avatar, with that entails, but she’s a drastically different character from Aang. She’s already mastered three of the elements, but lacks Aang’s connection to the spiritual side of the Avatar’s powers. Whereas Aang was forced to grow up too fast, Korra’s been sheltered to the point of ridiculousness, living most of her life isolated from the world. And while Aang’s pacifistic tendencies were an essential component of his character, Korra’s first instinct is to solve problems through fighting, not with words. It’s exciting to see how much depth there is to the premise of this universe. I feel like I could be enjoying fresh new stories about Avatars for decades to come.
The Legend of Korra doesn’t seem have a concrete plan the way Avatar did. Korra herself says that she doesn’t “exactly have a plan, yet”. With some story-driven series, this might worry me, but I have faith that the writers here know exactly what they’re doing. I can’t wait to watch Korra’s story unfold, and to fall in love with a whole new cast of characters. Korra is everything that I hoped it would be, and shows exactly what cartoons are capable of.
Be sure to watch The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon April 14th!
It’s doubtful that they have Saturday morning cartoons in the police-state future of “The Hunger Games” (in fact, they probably don’t even have Saturdays in the no-fun nation of Panem), but if they did, Katniss Everdeen would see a kindred spirit in “The Legend of Korra,” the ambitious new Nickelodeon series that premieres April 14.
Flinty, brave, loyal, impatient, impertinent, fierce and dangerous — Katniss and Korra have plenty in common and both live in a world that is close to our own but tilted by desperation and dark miracles of magic or science. If the pair attended the same high school, they could go out for the archery team and commiserate about how their names sound like two new lines of Ikea cabinets. (lmao wth)
For “Korra” co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, it’s heartening to see teen heroines get a major spotlight in any medium. “But you know,” Konietzko said dryly, “there’s room for a lot more than two.” Kim Possible, the Powerpuff Girls and She-Ra are among the animation heroines who beat the gender odds and got their own series, but, really, when it comes to legacy and expectations, the biggest rival for “The Legend of Korra” is the show’s own heritage.
The new series is a sequel saga to one of Nickelodeon’s signature successes, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which premiered in 2005 and won over a wide, loyal following (it consistently ranked in television’s top five animated shows among boys ages 6-11) with the tale of a boy named Aang who can manipulate fire, water, air and earth. Those abilities mark him as an “avatar,” and a figure of destiny in his world, which seems like a more supernatural magical and tribal counterpart to 19th century Earth.
“Avatar: the Last Airbender” found its animation aesthetic in anime but to fill out this other world the writing and art team drew on a wide range of influences (Chinese history, Hinduism, Inuit culture and yoga among them) and that gave the three-season series a surprising richness; “SpongeBob SquarePants” may possess a special genius of its own but “Avatar” is the only Nickelodeon show with a Peabody Award on the mantle.
The new show takes the story forward 70 years. Aang is gone but hardly forgotten — there’s a majestic statue of him in the harbor of bustling Republic City, which feels like old San Francisco and Hong Kong mashed-up and dropped into the topography of Vancouver, Canada. This is where the new avatar — a headstrong 17-year-old named Korra (voiced by Janet Varney) — arrives for the training she’ll need to become a worthy heir to Aang and a champion in a troubled time. Her mentor is Aang’s son, Tenzin (J.K. Simmons).
“All the old characters — Aang, Katara, Sokka — as these heroic figures and Aang casts a constant shadow over Korra and Tenzin who are trying constantly to live up to his legend,” DiMartino said. “Tenzin is trying to be the man that his father was and expects him to be and he’s carrying on his culture.”
The show is packed with steam punk touches and a culture that takes on different shapes as magic and technology combine and compete; flying beasts circle the skyline and other people who possess the ability to “bend” fire or water or earth (none of them can bend all three of those plus air, that’s the distinction of the avatar) have professional sports league where they test their skills in a sport as fantastical as Quidditch in the “Harry Potter” stories.
The characters are hand-drawn, a point of pride for the “Korra” team that fills an entire wing at Nickelodeon’s Burbank studios, but the approach might test the traditional assumptions of that term with a stylus and screen replacing the art table approaches of the past. The backgrounds of the series are infused with light, detail and texturing that go far beyond most shows — art director Konietzko set the bar high and he admits that the workload has been grueling.
“We have to live up to what we’ve done in the past and now we have to live up to the goals we’ve set, which are even higher,” Konietzko said. He added that the new series is leaner in its focus — it will stay on the core mythology and not meander as much as the previous series — and meaner as the world it presents. Politics and cultural divides will also push the show’s ambitions up another notch as far the content expectations of a cartoon series.
Really, though, the biggest question facing Korra is with her audience. With her powers and fighting ability, she can hold her own against any boy in her world, but will she be able to win over the affections of a young male audience here on Earth? She’ll need that for the show to qualify as a hit. Brown Johnson, president of animation for Nickelodeon, said the avatar will prove herself with any fan who watches, no matter their age or gender.
“There’s a generational shift that encourages girls to feel powerful — and for boys to see them as equals and partners,” Johnson said. “Korra takes the female hero to the next level and we are very proud to showcase her as the passionate teenage girl that she is.”
– Geoff Boucher