If you haven’t been watching The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon, you need to. While the show stumbled quite a bit in the first season, and has had a few missteps this season, it’s still the best animated show on television right now.
Last week Nickelodeon premiered the two-part episode “Beginnings,” which tells the origin story of the Avatar. In this episode we learn where the Avatar came from, and are given a preview of what Korra must do to balance the physical and spirit worlds. These two episodes were easily the best episodes in Korra thus far, and I’ll tell you why.
The beauty of animation
Before we talk about the story, let’s get this out of the way: the animation in these two episodes is–hands down, no debate needed–the best animation I’ve ever seen. This includes animation from classic Disney movies, which used to be higher quality than typical television shows simply due to the fact that when animators only have to animate 90 minutes of content for one movie verses hundreds of minutes of content for a full season of a television show, you expect the movie animation to be better. Korra has proven with every episode that a half-hour children’s show can set new standards in animation, and Beginnings kicked it up to 11.
The story takes place 10,000 years before the current show. To emphasize the ancient setting, the creators did something unprecedented: almost the entire episode was animated in the style of classic Chinese watercolor paintings. The bending especially looks amazing, from the swirls in the fire and air to the bold white and blue of the water.
Each animation frame is a work of art on its own, but when laced together, we are treated with a tapestry of visuals unlike any other.
Fleshing out the Avatar world
A good origin story has to do several things: tell a story that can stand alone from the plot of the main show, teach us something new that is relevant to the current timeline, and add details to the universe. Beginnings succeeds on all three tasks. While this episode will obviously be relevant to the rest of this season, I really enjoyed learning little details about the Avatar world.
Take firebending. At the beginning of the episode, Korra is helped by fire sages. One of the fire sages attempts to heal Korra with fire, very similar to how Katara used to heal people with waterbending. I love that firebending now contains this healing property, as the original Avatar series made it quite clear that fire is almost always used for destruction. Aang learned from the Sun Warriors that fire can also bring life, and Aang remarked that his fire was like “a little heartbeat.”
It makes sense that we never saw fire used for healing in the original series, as the Fire Nation was so disconnected from their roots that all they knew was war. Now in Korra’s generation, the Fire Nation has a chance to redeem itself by showing that fire can be used for more than destruction.
We also learn that when spirits possess humans, the humans are left permanently scarred and deformed. This man, Crazy Yao, is a bit difficult to look at, but I’m glad his character was included, as it shows kids that messing around with spiritual matters can have life-altering consequences if you don’t know what you’re doing.
This episode also reintroduces the Lion Turtles, one of my favorite creatures from the original Airbender. Lion Turtles are such a unique creature, and Beginnings shows us that Lion Turtles not only protect humans, but gave them bending to begin with.
We only saw the Lion Turtle in the last couple episodes of Airbender, and while it was an impressive sight, co-creator Bryan Konietzko remarked in the DVD commentary that he was extremely disappointed with how the animation turned out, and he’s never criticized the Korean animation house before. Hopefully he was pleased with how the new Lion Turtles came out.
Finally, the creators changed the story slightly about where bending came from. In Airbender, they said that the Fire Nation learned bending from the dragons, the Water Tribe learned bending from the moon, the Earth Kingdom learned bending from the badger moles, and the Air Nomads learned bending from the sky bison. It appears, though, that the Lion Turtles actually gave humans the bending powers, and then when they retreated from the world, humans were taught how to use their bending powers from the various sources. Perhaps the Lion Turtles also gave bending to the dragons and sky bison?
An episode packed with symbolism
The Avatar world has always been full of symbolism, which is great for dedicated viewers, even if children don’t always understand what’s happening. While Avatar mostly borrows from Chinese mythology and culture, it does borrow from other cultures as well. What I’ve always loved about Avatar is that the show’s not afraid to leave things unexplained: it doesn’t talk down to you by pointing out every last symbol.
Here are just a few from Beginnings:
If you haven’t done so already, check out Beginnings on Nickelodeon.com. The videos likely won’t be up forever, so don’t delay.