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THE LEGEND OF KORRA: Thoughts on episodes 1-2 (Spoilers)

This past weekend, the premiere episodes of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender which debuts on television next month, were made available for legal online viewing on KorraNation.com.  They were only up for the weekend, and are apparently gone now, but I watched the episodes twice, and here are my thoughts.  If you didn’t catch them over the weekend, then you may want to hold off reading this until after they premiere on Nickelodeon on Saturday, April 14 at 11 AM Eastern.  I’ll try to avoid any huge spoilers, though.  (This is mostly a repost from my review on the Ex Isle BBS.)

This was a great beginning, a gorgeously made continuation of the Avatar universe. The animation was spectacular, feature-quality work, continuing everything that was great about the original but ramping it up. It felt like a Miyazaki film, even more than A:TLA did. Even the 3D computer animation on the cityscape and airships was very smoothly integrated with the 2D animation; the opening shots of the cityscape and the statue of Aang looked like paintings but had 3D movement. The “satomobiles” (cute) looked a little more like digital constructs when in motion, but I guess that’s been done for so long that today’s viewers are probably used to it, and it’s certainly not unprecedented for this franchise.

Korra is a good character, well-played by Janet Varney. She’s got a nice strong voice that reminds me of both Mae Whitman (Katara) and Cricket Leigh (Mai). It took me a few minutes to realize it, but in a real sense, Korra is Aang, or rather the same soul in a new life. And she does have Aang-like qualities in her impetuousness and self-doubt, and in her impulse to heroism. But she’s different too, and her difficulty with airbending drives that home. She’s a lot more aggressive than Aang, and a lot less polite.

Great to see “Master Katara” again, but it’s a shame that Aang, Sokka, and evidently many of the others are gone. That’s surprising, really, considering that it’s only been 70 years and A:TLA showed us a number of characters who were well over a century old. I guess they wanted to keep the A:TLA characters’ presence to a minimum so they wouldn’t overshadow the new cast and storylines, but it’s still a bit odd.

Oh, and that was wicked of them to tease us about what happened with Zuko’s mother. (I think that story’s being told in the new comics.)

It’s interesting to hear J. K. Simmons as Tenzin; I’m used to hearing him play angrier, sterner characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Generator Rex‘s White Knight), so I didn’t initially recognize him in this softer-spoken role. Although Tenzin does seem to have a Jameson-esque temper boiling beneath the surface. It’s interesting… he’s Aang and Katara’s son, but he takes more after Sokka in appearance and maybe in some aspects of personality (though he’s serious, not the jokester Sokka was).

And I guess that “roll eyes skyward, then give a world-weary sigh” business is pretty clearly going to be Tenzin’s “thing,” but what’s impressive is that the animators have him do it a bit differently each time. I love the attention to detail. Joaquim Dos Santos is probably the best animation director in television (though credit should also be given to his co-director here, Ki Hyun Ryu), and it’s great to see his work again.

Not sure I’m crazy about the sports focus that emerged in episode 2, but it was well-handled. The climax was entirely predictable, but the execution still moved me.

I still find it surprising that they’ve gone so quickly from the early-industrial tech of A:TLA’s Fire Nation to this early-20th-century environment with cars and electricity and radio and cameras. But then, this is a world where it took them about six months to go from the Mechanist’s first prototype hot-air balloons to a fleet of massive war zeppelins. I guess they’re just very, very efficient. But I would’ve liked it if the tech had been a little less advanced, a little more steampunk and bending-based.

By the way, if Republic City is in the former Fire Nation colonies, then Air Temple Island can’t be older than about 70 years. So how come there’s a 2000-year-old teaching aid there? I guess it could’ve been moved there from somewhere else, but that line still threw me. (Not to mention that I doubt wooden flats like that could survive 2000 years outdoors.)

In episode 2, the pro-bending folks are surprisingly blase about discovering the Avatar is on their team. I mean, the Avatar’s kind of the most important person in the world, this deeply sacred figure. It’s kinda like having the Dalai Lama or the Pope join a sports team. Yet the sports folks merely had a few moments of surprise and then just rolled with it. That seemed like something got glossed over for the sake of pacing.

Also, one thing that concerns me a bit is that so far, all the bad guys seem to be male. I know Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are tough acts to follow, but it’s just not an Avatar-verse show without awesome, kickass young ladies on both sides.

On reflection, one other thing has been bugging me a bit.  Korra is worth watching for the gorgeous animation and rich characterizations and good music and such, but so far there’s very little sense of danger or high stakes.  By the end of episode 2 of A:TLA, we knew that the world was torn apart by war, that Aang had an urgent mission to pursue, that he felt guilty for abandoning the world and allowing the war to happen, and that he and his friends were being pursued by a driven and capable enemy who’d already done a lot of damage to Katara and Sokka’s home and would stop at nothing to capture Aang.  There was a clear, palpable sense of danger and urgency.  Here, though, the stakes don’t seem all that high.  The opening narration sets up the current situation but doesn’t give any indication of danger or trouble.  The first episode does establish the core conflict in Republic City — the unrest between benders and non-benders, the crime and social inequality, the risk of failing to fulfill Aang and Zuko’s vision for the city.  It suggests that Korra has a role in resolving those problems, and it introduces the villain Amon who will be her main rival.  But this is all more potential than actual at this point, and then episode 2 de-escalates things and spends the whole time focusing solely on Korra’s training and character interactions.  So any sense of high stakes hinted at in episode 1 faded in episode 2, and it’s hard to feel at this point that what we’re seeing is anywhere near as important as A:TLA’s saga.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional episode that has low stakes and focuses on character rather than danger and fighting.  “The Headband” in A:TLA’s season 3 is such an episode, and it works very well.  But if the intent was to debut the series with two back-to-back episodes, then it would’ve worked better to have a second episode that escalated things like “The Avatar Returns” did.  As it is, it feels kind of like the producers are coasting — like they expect us to watch out of loyalty and so aren’t trying as hard to give this series a really compelling storyline.  I’m hoping that subsequent episodes will prove otherwise, but the opening of this series is simply not as narratively strong as that of its predecessor.

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