Like most kids growing up last century, Saturday morning was one of my favorite times for a simple reason: cartoons. Endless cartoons. From before the sun rose to ... well, until Mom or Dad officially declared my animated utopia over by turning off the TV. Of course, I may have whined a bit, but I'd finally remove the box of Lucky Charms from my lap, get dressed and head outside to play.
Generations later, parents still know best. The problem, however, is in the knowing. A recent encounter with a mom reminded me of that. She was concerned about her son watching too much of Nickelodeon's top-rated animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Unfamiliar with the show, she wanted a quick "Plugged In" take.
I don't blame her for seeking outside help. We're far removed from the days of not-so-hidden messages found in a village full of tiny blue singsongy folk. With entire cable channels dedicated to animated fare 24/7 and in light of an ever-expanding animated catalog, it's tough for a parent to stay in the know. Add to this the common misconception among parents such as this mother that anime (a genre to which Avatar loosely belongs) is just another form of cartoons that's only harmful when consumed in excess.
You Can Do Magic
It's not difficult to see the appeal of Avatar, now entering its third season as the No. 1 animated series on TV among boys ages 9 to 14. The Lord of the Rings-ish journey of a group of likeable youngsters offers viewers a rich history, plenty of storylines and characters, and a vast Asian-influenced fantasy world you can get lost in. At the center is Aang, a fun-loving 12-year-old who likes playing with his flying bison and winged lemur. (Did I mention this world has some seriously strange animals?) He also just happens to be the Avatar—an all-powerful, reincarnating spirit being that exists within each generation and is housed in a body. Aang's task? To save the world ... that's all.
The power-hungry Fire Nation is set to rule the globe after a 100-year war, and with all other people groups nearly decimated, Aang is humanity's last hope for peace. In this fantasyland, civilization is split into four races, each categorized by one of nature's four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Within these tribes exist "benders" who can use their native element in martial arts fashion. For instance, one of Aang's closest friends, Katara, applies her mystical waterbending powers to create water whips, tsunamis, whirlpools, etc.
As the Avatar, whose purpose is to maintain harmony in the earth during his or her generation, Aang is supposed to be the sole being skilled in all four bending abilities. Only problem is, he isn't. And instead of having years of schooling, Aang is forced into on-the-job training as he and his friends plot to overturn the Fire Lord and his malicious brood. With all the other airbenders of his race already exterminated, Aang must live up to his Avatar calling before the summer ends or else the Fire Nation will turn the world upside down.
Spirits in the Material World
If you haven't already noticed, Avatar goes heavy on ancient Chinese, Japanese and Indian mysticism. While the series is made in the States, its American producers have turned it into a melting pot of Eastern-influenced spirituality that's disturbingly bold for a supposedly kid-oriented show. Obviously, countless other cartoons have presented questionable mysticism through the years (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, even well-intentioned classics such as Super Friends). But this current Nick fave seems to want to take things much further.
Besides the aforementioned reincarnation factor, the Avatar represents the "spirit of the earth" and harnesses a power that, as one ghostly forefather explains, is "a combination of all your past lives focusing their energy through your body." And as the chosen one, Aang regularly stumbles into the spirit world. (He's even given drugs to induce his Avatar state.) Other characters refer to their qi when mustering supernatural power. Places are described as hubs of spiritual energy. Hindu-esque gurus read this energy and receive visions through meditation, while Katara possesses the power to heal.
The adolescent main characters don't always use their powers for good, either. Katara and a friend get back at some tormenting girls by sending them down a raging river they concoct. They and the rest of the gang also have a bad habit of disrespecting elders, bucking authority and breaking rules (a particularly celebrated act).
Then Avatar mixes the convoluted spiritual stuff and bad attitudes with violence—not a healthy combination by any standard. And the fighting goes beyond Tom and Jerry tactics. Tribal genocide and general warfare are alluded to. We see scene after scene after scene of martial arts and Matrix-style combat. Instead of bloody fatalities, opponents get tossed around amidst dynamite explosions, moving rock formations, lightning bolts of fire and the like.
Not Just Saturday Anymore
To be certain, Avatar has several admirable things going for it. Absorbing storylines. Characters who sometimes buck typical one-dimensionality. Scattered redeeming messages (mainly from a kindhearted uncle who's trying to reform his firebending, revenge-bent nephew). And a well-executed blend of both anime and cartoon genres.
I wish I could say it's these elements that keep so many kids glued to the screen every day. Or that I had more of a glowing report for the mom concerned about her son. The truth is, anime's tendency toward violence and teen rebellion is disconcerting enough. But muddled spiritualism that's embraced and celebrated so extensively takes things to a whole new level. Mom, Dad: Welcome to a new animation generation—one that's no longer soaking up the same Saturday-morning toons that were long counted on to safely afford your parents some extra rest.