“The Legend of Korra” is the official sequel to the critically-revered Nickelodeon animated TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. With “Avatar”, American animation directors Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino created a universe where certain individuals were gifted with the ability to “bend” or manipulate the elements of earth, fire, wind and water. If only someone could bend hearts – then we’d have ourselves a Captain Planet. Anyhoo, the “Avatar” is the one individual who can master ALL four elements and bring balance to the world. In the original series, the Avatar was a twelve-year old monk named Aang who was freed by sister and brother Katara and Sokka (residents of the Southern Water Tribe) after spending 100 years frozen inside of an iceberg. Throughout the series’ three seasons (labelled as “Book 1 – Water”, “Book 2 – Earth” and “Book 3 – Fire”), Aang, Katara and Sokka battled the dominant Fire Nation (consisting of…..you guessed it…..fire benders) who waged war against the Earth Kingdom and the Northern and Southern Water Tribes.
Supported by strong writing, multi-layered characterization, great animation and the show’s own influences from Japanese animation (or “anime”), Chinese martial arts and history, and Eastern philosophy and religions, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was, and still remains, one of the finest of all modern animated series. It helped set a new standard for American kids’ cartoons, which, at that time (and even now, unfortunately) were usually considered to be less interesting and compelling to look at as opposed to the arguably superior genre of Japanese anime.
And then……..(cue tragic music) some terrible shit went down. July 1st 2010 – a day that will live in infamy – was the day that director M. Night Shyamalan released a $150-million budgeted, LIVE-ACTION version of the Nickelodeon series as the Paramount Pictures summer blockbuster release “The Last Airbender”. Based on the first season/book of “Avatar”, this film tried desperately to cram the main events of the 20-episode season into a 103-minute running time (including end credits). With a cast that included Dev Patel, who was fresh off the success of the Oscar-winning 2008 drama “Slumdog Millionaire”, as the over-acting villain Prince Zuko, some dude named Jackson Rathbone who played the off-screen, cue-card reading Sokka (who’s not even supposed to be fucking Caucasian, by the way), some chick named Nicola Peltz (also Caucasian) who played his sister Katara, and, Noah Ringer who played the whiny, constipated-looking Aang. On that fateful day of July 1st 2010, the Avatar franchise (not to be confused with James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic which CLEARLY wasn’t influenced in some shape or form to the Avatar cartoon. Wink wink) was decimated. Lives were lost, property damage skyrocketed, families were left homeless, and critics and fans criticized the film for its godawful dialogue, goddamned terrible 3D, poor storytelling and piss-poor decision to cast white and Indian actors as the main characters in the source material’s Asian-influenced universe. M. Night Shyamalan’s credibility as a director was immediately flushed down the drain, and up to this day (*COUGH*“After Earth”*COUGH*), he’s still trying to climb out of it.
Fortunately, the creators of “Avatar” hadn’t given up just yet. At the San Diego Comic-Con held on July 22nd 2010, production of a brand-new Avatar series (which was eventually titled “The Legend of Korra”) was announced. Set 70 years after the final episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, this spin-off, or should I say sequel, would focus on a new Avatar – an older, female one at that – named Korra. “Book 1: Air” premiered on Nickelodeon in April 14th 2012, and became the network’s most-watched animated series premiere in three years. Season 1/ Book 1 was critically acclaimed for its top-notch animation, creative use of steampunk and circa-1930s Saturday matinee visual and thematic elements, a deeply intelligent storyline which contained socio-political and spiritual themes, complex characters and a more mature approach to its story, thereby acknowledging and respecting the fact that the original fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” had already grown up.
This winning formula was applied with the latest season of “The Legend of Korra”: “Book 2 – Spirits”. But did it work this time or did it spontaneously combust? Or got blown up thanks to some fire bending? Or waterlogged thanks to water bending? Or buried thanks to earth bending? I’ll stop now. Besides, you get the idea anyway – at least I think so. And now for the review!
“THE LEGEND OF KORRA: BOOK 2 – SPIRITS” – Six months after the events of “Book 1 – Air”, the United Republic elected its first President, the Avatar Korra (Janet Varney) and her ally-turned-boyfriend Mako (voiced by David Faustino, well-known for his role as Budd Bundy in the classic, funny-ass family sitcom “Married….with Children”) are still together, and Republic City is experiencing a long-awaited period of peace (Get it? Period – peace? Period piece? Ha ha ha. Hmmm). Mako is now a policeman working under Chief Lin Beifong (Mindy Sterling), his brother Bolin (P.J. Byrne) continues pro-bending (i.e. a competitive sport involving bending), his ex-girlfriend Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) is still in control of her father’s automotive industry, and his girlfriend Korra continues to acquaint herself with her new-found Avatar powers under the tutelage of the elderly Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), Aang’s son. A family reunion begins as Tenzin and his family, along with Korra, Mako, Bolin and Asami visit Tenzin’s and Korra’s family in the Southern Water Tribe. One night, the village is attacked by a fearsome spirit, but thanks to the bending ability of Korra’s uncle and tribal chief Unaloq (Adrian LaTourelle), the spirit is driven back. This spirit is one of many that have found their way out of the Spirit World. Unalaq informs Korra that the only way to return these spirits to the Spirit World is to travel to the South Pole before the Winter Solstice and use her Avatar powers to open an ancient portal (which connects the human world to the Spirit World) that will drive the spirits back to their home and restore balance between light and darkness. Unbeknownst to Korra, this ‘portal opening’ is only the beginning of a grand scheme that will place the future of the Southern AND Northern Water Tribes, Republic City, the Avatar and the world in jeopardy.
Summing up the events of “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits” in a few short paragraphs is a challenging job in itself, as the scope of this latest season is far bigger than the previous one. There are sub-plots atop of sub-plots, characters atop of characters (Get your minds out of the fucking gutter, people! It’s not THAT type of “anime”), character arcs atop of character arcs, and twists and turns atop, underneath, alongside and through other twists and turns. And for the most part, that was what I expected to see in “Book 2 – Spirits”. With the proverbial “bar” raised considerably high with the last season due to its strong story and well-developed characters, I had hoped that the deeper and darker strides the show’s writers were taking with Season 2 would elevate that “bar” even higher. Unfortunately, some – not all, mind you – of Season 2’s biggest strengths are its biggest weaknesses. Certain sub-plots and character arcs feel lackluster and incomplete, and a few of them are completely unnecessary. Take for example, Tenzin’s son Meelo’s (Logan Wells) brief sub-plot (it doesn’t even last half of Episode 5) where he trains an adopted lemur. Oh sure, it gave us time to focus on Meelo (who provided much of the humour of Season 1), sure it shows his eventual growth, and sure, it is a very minor sub-plot in relation to the larger narrative. But it felt forced and unnecessary, as if the writers were desperately trying to maintain their preteen fan base by showing them cute, fuzzy images despite the darker, more mature thematic elements this season had to offer. There’s another sub-plot, this time involving Bolin, that spans about three-quarters of the entire season. Here, a shady businessman named Varrick (John Michael Higgins) – who, shockingly enough, provided some genuine humour to the show – hires Bolin to play the lead in a series of anti-Northern Water Tribe propaganda movies (which, in essence, was a clever commentary on the propaganda films of the first and second World Wars). Bolin’s story was okay, and he did get the opportunity to kick ass (Episode 11, in particular), but by the end of the season, he’s still the same goofy, bumbling, naive individual that he started off as.
But the most apparent of these not-so-spectacular character arcs is Korra’s. As the new Avatar, you would expect her character to be more aware and responsible of her actions, decisions and powers in this season. However, she finds herself so burdened with that responsibility that she makes bad decision after bad decision. Examples range from minor (breaking up with Mako after a heated argument) to major (the opening of the aforementioned portal, moments after she chooses mentorship with her uncle Unalaq over the trustworthy Tenzin). Yes, she does learn from her mistakes, but usually at a great cost. There’s even a moment where she learns of her Avatar ancestry via a mental journey through the life of Wan, the first Avatar (in the SUPERB two-part story “Beginnings”). Yet still she makes a foolish decision in Episode 10 (“A New Spiritual Age”) – though it could be argued that she “had to make a crucial decision” – that cost the spirit of Tenzin’s daughter Jinora (who admittedly showed more character growth in a few episodes than Korra did in one season – AIN’T THAT SOME SHIT?!). And yes, she gets all bad-ass in the grandiose season finale where she faces the menacing Vaatu (Jonathan Adams), the spiritual embodiment of darkness and Wan’s former foe. But because there was hardly any growth involved in Korra’s character, or at least emphasis on it since the story focused so much on other characters and their sub-plots, the climatic battle was underwhelming and lacked the spectacular nature of Book 1’s season finale where Korra finally became the Avatar.
On the plus side, there are flashes of brilliance in “Book 2 – Spirits”. The animation is even more top-notch than Season 1, more particularly in its magnificent action and fight sequences. Episode 11 (“Night of a Thousand Stars”), for example, had one of my FAVOURITE fight sequences where brothers Unalaq and Tonraq (Korra’s father) confronted each other in a very intense (even by TV-Y7 standards) water-bending battle. The voice acting is solid as before, with actors such as James Remar (from “Dexter”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Steven Yuen (“The Walking Dead”) churning out great vocal performances. I was extremely impressed by the unique character designs of the spirits which reminded me so much of the creatures created by the iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki in “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away”, two of his greatest works. At times, I found myself looking forward to seeing the next weird, wonderful spirit appear in the story than seeing the latest shit-storm started by the human characters. The tone is indeed darker than “Book 1 – Air”, but there still exists the humour, emotion and visual beauty that was praised from the previous season. And the narrative, while at times suffering from a sense of identity crisis (one instance, it’s about Korra, then it’s about civil war, then it’s about the history of the Avatar, then it’s about film propaganda, then it’s about a love triangle, then it’s about “Awwwww. They’re so cute” spirits, then it’s about “What the fuck is that?” spirits and so on), still exhibits the sharp storytelling that one expects from the “Avatar” franchise. Not the James Cameron movie. And CERTAINLY not the M. Night Shyamalan movie either.
With “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits”, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko deliver the same recipe from “Book 1 – Air” but with some vitamins and minerals that, while adding some much-expected flavour, dilutes the mix ever so slightly. The series’ flaws will (or must already have) annoy seasoned “Korra” fans, but there’s still enough story, action, characters (human and non-human) and overall entertainment to make your viewing experience a satisfactory one. All in all, I enjoyed “The Legend of Korra: Book 2 – Spirits”, though not as much as its predecessor. Personally, I won’t mind adding this season into my DVD collection, since I already have the 2-disc edition of “Book 1 – Air” in my collection already. If you haven’t seen “The Legend of Korra”, I highly recommend that you do so. It is still one of the best cartoons on television right now, and I hope that its credibility continues with its next season (“Book 3 – Change”) whose airing schedule is currently unknown. And for those who managed to sit through the entirety of “Book 2 – Spirits” for the last few months, when there was SO MUCH MORE you could do with your time on a Friday night, what are your thoughts on this season? Did you love it or hate it? Were you disappointed or were you pleased? And do you or don’t you still care about “The Legend of Korra”? Feel free to share your thoughts below.
MY RATING: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Worth a look”)