5 Ways Avatar: The Last Airbender Revolutionized Epic Fantasy in Animation

Fifteen years after it premiered, the show remains as charming, thrilling, and influential as ever.

by | February 21, 2020 | Comments

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)

(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Before How To Train Your Dragon, before Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, there was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon premiered a show 15 years ago that was unlike anything they (or audiences) had seen before. Taking the serialized storytelling of anime shows as well as epic world-building and lore from big film franchises of the time like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the result was a show with epic action, a rich mythology, and a story that still resonates to this day.

Now that Netflix and Nickelodeon have announced a live-action remake of the show, and to celebrate its 15th anniversary on February 21, Rotten Tomatoes spoke with animator and director Giancarlo Volpe about his work on Avatar: The Last Airbender. The director reflected on what made the show so special, and what advice he’d give show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko on their new adaptation.


“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days…” so begins the first episode of the show, with an opening monologue that sets up the world of the show and its different cultures, as well as the conflict and the stakes at hand. Though the show only lasted three seasons, Avatar introduced us to a world full of history and lore, all without the need for overt exposition.

“You’d be surprised how little can set people off in the right direction,” Volpe told Rotten Tomatoes. “Just contrasting the air nomads, who have elaborate temples that are difficult to reach unless you can almost fly, with the water tribes that are primarily at the Northern and Southern poles of the planet surrounded by water and ice. Just the little things already make people’s imaginations soar.”

Indeed, the show feels more in line with something like Star Wars, which introduced us to alien creatures, technology, and history either visually or in passing conversation (like Luke name-dropping the Clone Wars without further explanation). In the first episode, we instantly feel that this is a world both familiar and completely different than our own. When we meet two of our main characters, siblings Sokka and Katara are out fishing. Katara uses some magical abilities that her brother refers to as “an ancient art unique to our culture.”

Their village closely resembles traditional Inuit culture, just like the other nations resemble real cultures like ancient China, imperial Japan, and Tibetan Buddhists, yet we also see things like a “tiger seal” or a group of “otter penguins” which are exactly what you imagine. The show introduces us to past wars, kings, kingdoms and legends all via conversation or subtle visual cues, making its world feel lived-in. Even if you probably won’t be able to write a history book about the world of Avatar like you would Middle-Earth, you get a sense that a lot more is happening on the world than what our characters are going through.


Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)

(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Even though it was primarily aimed at kids, played with juvenile humor, and had a Y-7 rating, Avatar wasn’t afraid to explore some dark subjects. From the opening monologue we know that the world of the show has been involved in a war for 100 years, but by episode 3 we learn the serious consequence of that war.

“The air benders were wiped out while Aang was frozen for a hundred years,” Volpe explained. “We basically dealt with a Holocaust in our third episode. And we always had to do it in a way that made it appropriate for the Nickelodeon channel and brand. We saw how they handled that kind of subject matter in anime and figured out how to tell those stories in an accessible way. It became more about how the characters react to it, more than the thing itself. We don’t explicitly say the word genocide, but we see Aang’s pain at seeing his old friend dead, and we can imagine the rest.”

Avatar does deal with heavy themes such as war crimes, class division and corporal punishment, but it’s always through the eyes of its young cast. With this, the show doesn’t have to explicitly tell us anything, but show enough of a hint that older audiences know the gravitas of what’s going on, while younger audiences understand how the characters feel about what’s going on. They may not be able to express that there is a puppet government in the Earth Kingdom, but they know the King isn’t the one in power, because our characters seem confused when the king isn’t aware of the war outside his walls. They may not know what executions are, but they know that the water benders the Fire Nation captured never returned home.


Even if we had seen action cartoons before Avatar, none had its eye for action or sense of scope. In just 3 seasons we got hand-to-hand combat that rivaled classic kung-fu movies, and large-scale battles that rivaled big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Each of the four nations had their own unique style of bending, inspired by real martial arts, making the fight scenes look fluid and grounded in reality. The show creators also insisted on animating the show as if it was live action.

“I was not used to drawing stuff in all these crazy angles,” Volpe told us. “But Bryan [Konietzko] would ask us to use a wide-angle lens to make it feel cinematic.”

By season 3 the show included full-scale invasions with dozens of war balloons, tanks and fighters that brought audiences to the middle of a battleground. The production team took some lessons from watching anime in learning how to do big battle scenes.

“We had ways we could cheat it so that it implies Lord of the Rings–style battling, but you’re not killing yourself doing that,” Volpe said. “But what works in your favor is that you care about who wins, so as long as we point the camera at that person the show feels more satisfying that simply watching 800 tiny fire benders from above.”


Just like live-action shows, the vast majority of cartoons were episodic, meaning each episode could stand on its own so that if you missed an episode you could still understand everything. Though Avatar still has fairly standalone episodes, the writers still had a clear path in mind, and all the actions taken by the characters have dire consequences.

This is done mostly through character arcs, as we see Aang, Katara, and Sokka grow up and mature through the show’s run, as does the villain, Zuko. As they travel the world to find a way to end their war, Aang finally accepts his responsibility as Avatar, Katara learns to cope with her trauma and forgive the Fire Nation for taking her mother away from her, and even Sokka takes more of a leadership role.

The show’s greatest feat, however, was its treatment of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, and how he went from villain to hero. During the span of its three seasons, we saw Zuko struggle with his legacy and what he thought was his duty. We learned of his complicated past and the events that led to him becoming a reluctant villain, and even see him confront the sins of his past and his nation by meeting those who were victimized by the war. This all serves to make Zuko’s struggle to become good all the more poignant, as audiences see him consider and even attempt at turning sides several times, so that when he finally follows through and decides to help the Avatar, the audience knows he earned forgiveness.

“I remember there was a debate when we made season 2,” Volpe explained. “The writers considered turning Zuko at the end of that season, but then it felt like it was too early, and it would actually hurt more if he messed up and took longer.”


Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon)

(Photo by Nickelodeon)

Because of its serialization, there had to come a point when Avatar would end. Where most other contemporary cartoons would simply run its course with an episode that resembled any other, Avatar was building up to an epic finale since its first handful of episodes. We knew Aang would have to face and defeat the Fire Lord because otherwise he would take over the world and enslave everyone, we knew the show couldn’t end before and it couldn’t really continue past it, so the audience knew they’d have to prepare to say goodbye.

And what a finale it was, structured as a two-hour movie, Avatar tied up loose ends, paid off character arcs and relationships, and deepened the mythology, culminating in Aang fulfilling his destiny and bringing balance back to the world in one of the most epic fights ever produced in any medium.

It also proved to be a very influential finale, as Avatar: The Last Airbender continues to inspire changes in what wee think of as children’s animation.

“What I saw after Avatar was a number of shows that were recruiting me that wanted more of what we did on the show, usually when it came to the fighting styles of that show,” Volpe said. “Likewise, our approach to serialization, doing standalone episodes that still build a coherent and linear story, is a request I hear to this day. Streaming works incredibly well with this, because you’re much more likely to want to watch the next episode if the story is serialized. There definitely seems to be a demand for something more like Avatar, it changed the type of jobs I was getting after it wrapped up, going from King of the Hill–style comedies to things like Star Wars.”

Of course, though the story of Avatar: The Last Airbender may be over, Netflix decided it wasn’t done with Aang and his friends and announced last year that original creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko will return to make a live-action adaptation of the show.

Volpe had a piece of advice for the remake: “I think what’s interesting is figuring out who the target demographic is for the live-action show. Are they catering to the next wave of children or the 30-year-olds who watched the show when they were 15 or 20? If so, it could give them some artistic license to age it up. It’s an intriguing question to ponder.”

Tag Cloud

Marvel 2020 Rocketman satire The Purge dramedy scorecard Dark Horse Comics Awards hist blockbuster CBS nfl MCU Television Critics Association biography Election TIFF TV Land Disney Plus Biopics Walt Disney Pictures Infographic kids book adaptation Broadway Sony Pictures historical drama game show classics BAFTA 2021 FX cats spanish Reality Competition critics heist movie tv talk MSNBC Vudu romantic comedy Universal Brie Larson crime drama Valentine's Day Grammys anthology ITV binge Fall TV VOD Lifetime Sundance Now doctor who Mary Poppins Returns hispanic revenge natural history History Netflix 72 Emmy Awards Binge Guide Hulu toy story comedies criterion USA Network Kids & Family GIFs Alien First Reviews HBO aliens Pet Sematary independent renewed TV shows Black History Month high school Disney+ Disney Plus Esquire Sneak Peek Captain marvel Disney Warner Bros. trailers blockbusters cults singing competition finale king kong rotten movies we love Trivia science fiction docuseries franchise Family YouTube Red TCA halloween tv know your critic Creative Arts Emmys dogs Photos telelvision richard e. Grant series VH1 zombies Pride Month justice league golden globe awards Film Festival Paramount National Geographic Rom-Com political drama Comics on TV Emmy Nominations Mystery parents Sundance TV 24 frames TV One Apple TV+ Premiere Dates 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards pirates of the caribbean Super Bowl Year in Review Podcast Character Guide Marvel Studios spinoff godzilla See It Skip It women Adult Swim spanish language Television Academy indiana jones razzies VICE quibi Bravo NBC kong SundanceTV documentaries Oscars talk show rom-coms cancelled TV series latino romance fast and furious The Walking Dead emmy awards Music Columbia Pictures Box Office harry potter movies hollywood cancelled TV shows witnail Watching Series Crunchyroll Spectrum Originals Ghostbusters President spy thriller japanese venice dark DC Comics mission: impossible 71st Emmy Awards TCA Awards MTV mockumentary TV movies Pacific Islander A&E BBC One comic books TBS sequels unscripted Star Trek ESPN twilight NYCC 2018 comics halloween target new zealand 99% Avengers Rock werewolf Netflix Christmas movies WGN TNT Action New York Comic Con space PaleyFest movie saw psychological thriller stop motion Summer ABC Family Reality CNN Extras black TruTV PlayStation Comic Book docudrama based on movie medical drama concert IFC Films Turner Classic Movies french festivals game of thrones screen actors guild 45 2015 Superheroe discovery 2016 scary movies Britbox Exclusive Video ABC Signature aapi documentary all-time Musicals Mindy Kaling foreign jamie lee curtis FX on Hulu Classic Film lord of the rings streaming movies 20th Century Fox Pixar Masterpiece Image Comics comic Song of Ice and Fire name the review 2017 Cannes Funimation christmas movies golden globes prank batman crossover fresh Nickelodeon BET canceled psycho teaser Musical hidden camera Superheroes San Diego Comic-Con Epix LGBT ABC DC Universe Interview SDCC Polls and Games toronto Sundance TLC deadpool First Look Mudbound reboot 007 directors Freeform dceu zero dark thirty festival USA ratings jurassic park sitcom nature Amazon Prime GLAAD stand-up comedy TV renewals Crackle crime Starz chucky Peacock E3 cancelled television Set visit Nat Geo casting robots 93rd Oscars Countdown elevated horror stoner Comedy Central Holiday theme song Country Anna Paquin Ovation FOX true crime serial killer miniseries FXX boxing joker Legendary Fantasy zombie The CW blaxploitation free movies new star wars movies green book CBS All Access Teen transformers composers television Animation Tarantino Chilling Adventures of Sabrina child's play live action streaming Lucasfilm Thanksgiving dc crime thriller children's TV Ellie Kemper supernatural Stephen King Fox News ID thriller diversity travel Apple superman anime news Red Carpet cooking OneApp YA Paramount Network DC streaming service Shudder ghosts marvel cinematic universe james bond Awards Tour boxoffice X-Men italian popular Arrowverse nbcuniversal Syfy best Calendar Showtime animated laika DirecTV versus 21st Century Fox period drama scene in color Hallmark Christmas movies Paramount Plus Tomatazos AMC Toys cartoon Women's History Month monster movies Comedy Cartoon Network Acorn TV obituary BBC America football screenings video CW Seed cinemax Star Wars sports TV LGBTQ kaiju adaptation Quiz Cosplay Video Games The Arrangement DGA australia A24 CMT Marathons IFC Endgame book Shondaland Baby Yoda Western YouTube HBO Max a nightmare on elm street indie sag awards GoT adventure Lionsgate strong female leads Holidays Spike ViacomCBS YouTube Premium politics Lifetime Christmas movies BBC Elton John RT History archives Martial Arts Academy Awards Heroines Tumblr Tubi facebook Opinion Disney Channel Nominations reviews Film what to watch Mary poppins international video on demand Amazon Prime Video Mary Tyler Moore mutant social media Trophy Talk HBO Go 2019 El Rey Marvel Television APB asian-american Sci-Fi cars police drama award winner Schedule disaster Best and Worst PBS Writers Guild of America breaking bad south america Hear Us Out TCA Winter 2020 Rocky SXSW slashers Apple TV Plus Travel Channel The Witch spider-man Certified Fresh Emmys Spring TV E! The Academy Amazon American Society of Cinematographers Food Network Black Mirror OWN Turner TCA 2017 TCM cops war films Winners Discovery Channel Chernobyl dragons Amazon Studios Pop TV vampires new york BET Awards die hard Logo technology RT21 spain Trailer Fox Searchlight universal monsters Pop The Walt Disney Company Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt cancelled canceled TV shows remakes worst movies 4/20 comiccon Disney streaming service rt archives rotten sequel Christmas superhero Horror Pirates WarnerMedia Hallmark Drama worst Winter TV