Most western animation for children is, to put it simply, really wretched. At best, it's tolerable.
But a shining exception would be the tale of the Avatar of all four elements, and to restore the balance in the world. "Avatar The Last Airbender - Book 1" serves as a solid first season to this series, with its colourful world, vivid action and complex characters. It may be aimed at kids, but it's a solid enough series to be enjoyed by any age.
South Pole Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka stumble across a glowing iceberg, with a young Airbender boy named Aang (and his flying bison) sealed inside. All Airbenders were killed long ago by the Fire Nation. You guessed it (and so does Katara): Aang is the Avatar who mysteriously vanished a century ago, and is the only hope against the Fire Nation. And, uh, he's a total goofball.
Unfortunately, a Fire Nation prince named Zuko has been wandering the world in search of Aang, and agrees to let the Water Tribe alone if Aang surrenders. Of course, Katara and Sokka set out to rescue their friend, and since Katara isn't experienced enough in waterbending to teach Aang how to do it, they set out for the North Pole to find a waterbending master.
Along the way, the three friends encounter hurricanes, woman warriors, a loopy old king who seems very familiar, Aang's ruined temple, a Spirit World Beast, a waterbending scroll, pirates, teenage rebels, two tribes locked in an eternal feud, a mysterious man in a blue mask, fortunetellers, a rogue Firebender, and an Air Temple turned into a steampunk palace.
But through the journey, Aang is confronted by the vast changes from the last century, and they are constantly attacked by the desperate Zuko, and his arrogant rival General Zhao. And when they arrive at the icy citadel at the North Pole, Aang finds that saving his friends may be far more difficult than he expected...
The highest compliment I can pay "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is that it's like a thoroughly solid action/fantasy anime, with lots of elemental fights. Though it starts off on a typical quest, it's graced with good writing, excellent animation, and a general look drawn from Asian and Inuit cultures.
Though most of "Book 1: Water" is made up of one-episode stories, the writers nevertheless weave subplots through it. The world itself is a simple but well-realized one, with different civilizations clashing against the steampunky armored tanks and ships of the Fire Nation. Assassinations, captures, escapes and spiritual journeys are all interwoven into this story.
That isn't to say that it's all grim and serious -- it's quite the opposite. Lots of amusing dialogue ("I'm too young to die!" "I'm not, but I still don't wanna!"), slapstick, and flashy fights involving eruptions of fire, swirling water and blasts of air. It all culminates in a brilliantly epic clash, which wraps up the season nicely while leaving the way open for Aang's next lessons.
And they do a good job with the characters -- Aang is a kind and selfless kid, but still a kid. He has plenty of inner guilt and turmoil over his role as the Avatar and his past mistakes, but is still down-to-earth enough to tell an amazed fortune-teller, "Yeah, yeah, I knew that already. But did it say anything about a girl?" Katara and Sokka make good companions -- a sensible, short-fused girl with waterbending powers, and her rather reckless, courageous brother.
And though technically the antagonist, scarred teenager Zuko also is worthy of note -- as the series winds on, we see how desperate he is to regain his lost honor, and the horrible event that led to his exile. He's the exact opposite of the nasty, proud Zhao -- and his lovably pervy uncle Iroh makes for good comic relief ("I'm certain you bathe regularly"), but there are hints that he's much more than that.
"Avatar The Last Airbender: The Complete Book 1" has a few initial wobbles, but quickly blossoms into a brilliant little show. Definitely worth seeing.