Why Avatar: the Last Airbender Is More Than A Childrens Cartoon

Why Avatar: the Last Airbender Is More Than A Childrens Cartoon

Connor Keough, Staff Writer

After 16 years, many people question why Avatar: the Last Airbender is regarded as one of the most iconic, extraordinary series in cartoon history, but I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why.  There are so many thematic and cultural elements that are drawn into Avatar that distinguish it from your run of the mill Nickelodeon show.  It might have been the high stakes and high action which originally hooked fans and outlookers alike, but that’s not what won Avatar its praise. 


Avatar teaches good values

In Avatar, each of the four nations, which represent the four elementswater, earth, fire, and air are based upon different cultural groups with different customs that are vibrantly displayed in the show.  Each nation is based on real ethnic groups and not only teaches about different ways of life, but also aims to expand the audience’s understanding of these cultures and their values while painting them in a positive, creative light. 

The Air Nomads are based on Buddhist Monks who meditate to find inner peace.  These people are generally pacifists and teach important spiritual lessons.  The main character, avatar Aang, is the only Air Nomad alive and constantly demonstrates the values of Buddhist Monks when he utilizes the teachings of the Monks who raised him. Throughout the three-season series, Aang always tries to solve a problem with conflict avoidance and deliberation that he learned from his mentors before he is forced to reluctantly resort to fighting.   

Based on Chinese culture the people of the Earth Kingdom are resilient and strong.    No matter how long they are under attack from the fierce and brutal Fire Nation, they keep fighting which is extremely commendable.  Their type of strength enables them to teach the important virtues of bravery and tenacity.

Next up is the water tribe, where their people inhabit the world’s polar regions.  The traditions of the water tribe are largely based around inuit culture, with some influence drawn from Chinese culture.  Water Tribesmen are peaceful and strive to live in harmony with nature which is why they’ve garnered such deep respect for the moon spirit.  

The Fire Nation is last and is mostly based on Japanese culture of the time. The world of Avatar has its own timeline, however, based on the technology present in the world it’s safe to assume it takes place around 1880. This is important because at that point Japan had imperialized and started trying to build an empire
in Asia, just like the Fire Nation. The series draws a lot of inspiration from Japan, China and other parts of Eastern Asia which exposes viewers to all sorts of different cultures and values.

On top of all that, honor and self worth are centripetal ideas to the plot.  One of the series most popular and well known characters, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, has a misconception about what honor is and how to restore his.  His internal struggle is to find out who he really is and what defines his character.  After his banishment from the Fire Nation, Zuko has spent his life searching for the avatar.  After several instances of having Aang where he wanted, Zuko began focusing on other aspects of life rather than hatred, such as valuing time with his Uncle and finding other things that make him happy. This didn’t happen in the flip of a switch. His character arc accurately depicts what it is like for us as the audience to find our self worth and experience positive life development. Though a rocky journey, he found who he was and started valuing himself that restoring his honor was no longer a concern consuming his life. 



The show is not afraid to show real-world problems

In a world where people can manipulate and bend Earth’s core elements, you would expect the focus of the show to be centred strictly around that aspect, but it is not the case. Avatar: the Last Airbender has never shied away from demonstrating real world problems and effectively presents them in a way that is easy for its central audience, kids, to understand.  

The most glaring example of this is  the main plot point: the ongoing war between the four nations.  It is most specifically prevalent in the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se, the only place untouched from the Fire Nation.  Due to the widespread destruction caused by the Fire Nation, refugees flee to Ba Sing Se by the thousands for safety and serenity only to realize it is not the paradise they were seeking. Unfortunately, anyone who is a free thinker with ideas that will benefit the public welfare is taken away and brainwashed by the Dilee, an elite group of Earth Kingdom soldiers who run the day to day operations of the city.  

Enter Jet, a headstrong young man who commands a small group of fighters known as the freedom fighters.  Though he is a morally grey character because of his definition of freedom, he always stands for what he believes is right which includes fighting injustice.  After fighting the Fire Nation as a rebel for years, he realized that the supposed “good guys” were not morally superior to those he has been persistently fighting against.  Subsequently, he is brainwashed into silence by the Earth Kingdom.

Avatar usually tackles these real world problems by showing characters experiencing it for themselves which includes becoming a refugee.  The banished Prince Zuko, must live in Ba Sing Se’s outer ring of the city as a refugee and because he grew up in a palace, the contrast between his old life and new life is noticeably dramatic.  However, Avatar tries to make the best of some of these social issues. Zuko’s life as a refugee teaches him humility which is a big step in determining who he becomes.  



The characters’ struggles are relatable 

I know what you may be thinking: any good show should have their characters’ struggles be relatable to the target audience.  But over the years, animated shows haven’t hit that mark the same way live action shows have for kids.

Characters in Avatar experience hardships but like problems in real-life, some are easy to  overcome while others rely on time to fix.  However, the hardships that the characters experience and struggle with are always presented with a positive outlook.  

Halfway through the series, Aang’s flying Bison, Appa, is taken away from him.  Appa means so much to Aang because he is one of the few living relics of the Southern Air Temple.  Aang can’t stand idle while his friend is missing, so he sets out to find Appa. Unfortunately, his attempts are hopeless and it is his friend Katara who needs to  reassure him that they will find Appa.  Despite losing a loved one, Aang is able to continue on with his avatar duties because of the encouragement and support from his friends.

Do you have someone in your life you wish you were like in some respect? Maybe sometimes you are around them and your abilities and achievements feel inferior in comparison to theirs? Avatar touches upon this common struggle too. Aang, being the avatar and all, is an incredibly powerful bender.  He travels with friends including Katara and Toph, who are water benders and earth benders respectively.  However, Sokka, Katara’s brother, is a non bender which often leaves him feeling useless when the gang stands up to the Fire Nation.  The mark of Sokka’s character revolves around his resiliecents as the blood of a water tribe warrior pulses through his veins and leads him to be very courageous.  A character like Sokka’s usefulness is measured in other ways than his competence in battle.  He uses his brain more than his brawn, still proving usefulness to the team by contributing brilliant schemes.  



It has been 16 years since Avatar: the Last Airbender’s release in 2005 but its influence is still cemented in Nickelodeon history and makes the show an all time great.  Avatar did more than just sell ad space. It has reached generations of kids in over 105 countries around the globe and will continue to do so.  With its expansive reach as well as the perfect mix of action, humor and drama, it is no wonder Avatar: the Last Airbender is considered an amazing children’s cartoon that appeals to audiences of all ages.