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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.

Ups and downs

Well, I had a good time on my trip to New York last week, and I was feeling really cheerful when it ended, but no sooner did I get home that I came down with a ferocious cold (or upper respiratory infection?), and I’ve been feeling awful ever since.  Urgh.  Well, at least I’ve been feeling a little less awful each day, so hopefully I’ll be recovered soon.  I’ve pretty much been loafing in front of the TV for most of the past four days, whether live TV or DVR or On Demand or DVD.  And some in front of the computer too, of course, but not as much, since I can’t lie down here.  (If I had wireless, I could take my laptop over to the couch or my bed and surf from there.  I should look into that.)

It’s lucky that I don’t have any demands on my time right now — aside from things like washing the dishes (I finally did a fair amount last night, though the sink’s still somewhat cluttered) and getting groceries (I’ll probably need to make a bare-bones trip this afternoon, once it gets warmer).  I probably should’ve gone to the pharmacy days ago and gotten something to ease my symptoms, but I wasn’t up to it.  (This is the problem with living in a different city from all of one’s friends and family.  I need to make more local connections.  Or move.)

I’ve accomplished effectively nothing creatively since getting home.  I’m just not up to it.  I read recently about how the brain is an energy-intensive organ, regularly consuming as much energy as your legs would need to run a marathon or some such.  I guess I don’t have that much energy to spare.  (If that were true, though, wouldn’t I lose weight when I sit in front of the computer and write?)

Among all that TV watching, I’ve discovered there’s a new half-hour cartoon coming out based on Kung Fu Panda, a movie franchise I’ve quite enjoyed.  It’s called Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. They showed a preview episode last night,  and the writing was pretty much on the same level as the movies.  (It’s executive-produced by Peter Hastings, who co-created Pinky and the Brain.)  They seem to be staying true to the approach of the films, keeping it in a world akin to medieval China and not littering it with modern Western pop-culture references.  None of the film’s voice cast seems to be involved, at least not in the episode I saw, but the soundalike actors they got did reasonably well.  (Wikipedia says that James Hong and Lucy Liu will be reprising their film roles, but they weren’t in the previewed episode.)  The biggest drawback is the animation.  As one would expect from a TV series, the CGI is a lot simpler and less fluid than in the movies, and worst of all, the action scenes are boringly choreographed, with mostly static camera work.  One of the best things about the KFP movies is that they work as full-fledged wuxia movies that just happen to be about animated anthropomorphic animals.  It doesn’t look like the series will live up to that, even if it’s otherwise pretty good.

Oh, wait, then again, Wikipedia says the show’s martial arts consultant is Sifu Kisu, the consultant for Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose martial-arts action was spectacular.  So maybe the problem isn’t with the action choreography, just the cinematography.  Hopefully they’ll learn to improve the camera movement.

Home again

As I planned, I went in for one last day of New York Comic-Con, mainly with the hope of seeing a panel on Jim Henson.  But I underestimated how crowded the NYCC has gotten.  It’s become virtually impossible to get into the panels unless you camp out for hours.  Still, I got to spend a little more time hanging around with folks like Kevin Dilmore and Keith DeCandido, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

This visit played havoc with my usual sleep and meal schedule, since Dave and Kara tend to do things later than I do and since their guest bed took some adjusting to, but I was starting to adapt after a few days.  I stayed up pretty late on Saturday night watching movies on their HDTV.  I’d caught the last hour or so of Avatar (the Cameron movie) the night before, so Dave found the movie on HBO HD On Demand and I watched the rest.  I actually prefer seeing it in that order, since the early world-building stuff is more entertaining than all the fighty-shooty-blowy-uppy stuff later on.  After that, we watched Megamind, which was a far more enjoyable movie than I ever would’ve expected.

After the con on Sunday, I made my annual visit to Midtown Comics to use the coupon I picked up at the con.  I got two cool things, a collection of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics (many by creators from the show, and even the ones that weren’t were often quite good) and the complete collection of the original comics version of The Middleman, which became one of my favorite short-lived TV series.

My trip home Monday was pretty smooth, except for it being my first time flying out from LaGuardia, so I had some confusion about what line to get into — plus the lunch I bought there was insanely expensive.  There was a mother and baby next to me on the plane, but the baby didn’t cry too much.  And there was actually a view this time; the weather was mostly clear, and it was quite interesting watching the landscape shrink so tiny and move by so (relatively) fast.  The coolest part was the approach to Cincinnati.  The jet flew over the central part of the city from the south before looping around to approach the airport from the north, and as it passed downtown and moved toward the university region, there was a point where I could literally see my apartment building.

Unfortunately, I guess it was somewhat inevitable that after being among all those gajillions of people at the convention and in the streets of Manhattan, not to mention breathing recirculated, germ-filled plane air, that I’ve now come down with a cold and a sore throat.  Ugh.  Luckily, I have no demands on my time so I can just lie on the couch and watch my DVRed shows.  (Plus a couple that the DVR failed to record but that were available On Demand.)

Well, except that I’m out of certain perishable items I didn’t want to buy before my trip, like bread and fruit.  So I’ll have to go shopping soon.  Hopefully I can hold out a day or two longer.  I’m pretty useless today.

Aang, interrupted

Well, darn it.  When I got my DVR a little while back, I decided it gave me a chance to catch up on the reruns of Avatar: The Last Airbender airing on Nicktoons at various times of various days.  They seemed to run through them pretty quickly, so I figured I’d wait until I’d collected all 61 episodes, or nearly all with the end in sight, and then watch them straight through in as short a time as feasible.  Annoyingly, they didn’t show them in order, so I had all the third season before getting most of the second.  And then when I had only two episodes left in season 2, they skipped them and started over again, and I had to wait a few more weeks to get them.

But finally last week I got them all, so I started watching them.  And it went fine for a while.  But then the recordings started cutting off before the episodes ended, because the airings ran a bit over.  Now, normally my preference with recordings is to set them for extra time before and after just in case of such discrepancies, but since a lot of these episodes were aired back-to-back, I figured that would overlap them and create a conflict.  Now, when it was just the last few moments of an episode, I could live with it — since if it was a really important scene, it would probably be in the next episode’s recap anyway.  But then I started coming upon episodes that were running three minutes late or even five minutes.  That was just unacceptable, so I gave up, about a third of the way through season 2.

So I tried to figure out what to do next.  Buy the DVDs?  I intend to eventually, but I’ve got my Shore Leave trip coming up and I want to save my money for now.   But I realized something.  I remembered that the cable box/DVR actually has two tuners and is able to record two things at once, so long as you don’t try to watch a third show on the box at the same time.  I figure there’s no reason both tuners can’t be on the same channel (at least, I hope there isn’t), so it should be possible to overlap two consecutive recordings.  So I decided to erase my existing recordings of A:TLA seasons 2 & 3 and start collecting them again, this time setting the DVR to run five extra minutes.  But it looks like Nicktoons is still showing them in a bizarre order and it’ll probably be at least three weeks before I get them all (though maybe if I’d started a few days earlier I could’ve gotten them).  But I guess waiting a few weeks is better than waiting several months between blocks of episodes, like I did when it originally aired.  I won’t meet my goal of watching the whole thing in one big clump, at least not until I eventually get the DVDs.  But I guess that’s what you get when you try something new: unexpected results.  It was an experiment and I learned something.

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