“All Stuffed With Fluff”

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

Love, love, love Winnie the Pooh! Behind How to Train Your Dragon and Lord of the Rings/Hobbit it is one of the things guaranteed to put a smile on my face. I am not aware exactly of how or when I first fell in love with Winnie the Pooh; it’s been a favorite as long as I can remember. I have a copy of A.A. Milne’s book, several Disney board books, and a more recent treasury. When my brother and sister-in-law were expecting, I knew I would be getting Pooh bear items; it’s classic and works for boys or girls. Pooh celebrated his 90th birthday in 2016 and more information about his background has been released. Like the real story of a bear named Winnie (I have that book).

Pooh

The movie opens once again with a storybook in the supposed nursery of Christopher Robin. The nursery is actually very reminiscent of the one from Mary Poppins, with the same bedspread, similar blocks and furniture. Our narrator gives a little background and explains that all of Christopher Robin’s friends like in a “wonderful world of make believe,” the Hundred Acre Wood. The film is made of shorter segments, like chapters; the book even flips pages between stories, with an adorable intro tune. We’re treated to several songs throughout the movie. Pooh sings as he practices his “stoutness exercises,” perfectly content to be who he is. Sadly, he is out of honey, so Pooh must go get some more and a flittering bee gives him an idea. After falling out of the tree from his initial plan to simply climb, Pooh borrows a balloon from Christopher Robin, then rolls in the mud, becoming a Little Black Rain Cloud. He floats up to the bee hive, but the bees suspect (which Pooh spells correctly, he often has more than “very little brains”) and after flying about for a bit, Pooh lands with Christopher Robin in the mud.

Next, Pooh visits Rabbit for lunch and overindulges on honey. He gets stuck when he tries to leave and no tugging or pulling works to free him. So, Pooh must wait until he’s thinner to leave. Rabbit’s not pleased by his houseguest, though he attempts to decorate Pooh’s backside (it doesn’t work out). Gopher makes an appearance (he’s not in every chapter and not often part of the core group of characters). Just when Rabbit despairs ever using his other door, Pooh budges. There’s a little parade and everyone joins in to free Pooh. A little too much “oomph” and he flies into the bee tree and is finally able to enjoy honey again.

The Hundred Acre Wood has a Blustery Day next. Pooh’s diddy takes lyrics from the book as he skips along to visit his Thoughtful Spot. After some thinking (and input from Gopher) he decides to wish his “very dear friend, Piglet” a “happy Winds-Day.” Alas, the little Piglet is blown about by the wind and becomes a kite. They run into Owl, his tree and house rocking back and forth in the wind, before it’s finally blown over. The Blustery Day turns into a Blustery Night and there’s a new sound in the Wood. Pooh, being a bear of very little brain, lets the new noise in. Turns out, it’s a Tigger! I think The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers is the most famous song from Winnie the Pooh. It’s very cheerful and “bouncy.” Tigger puts the idea in Pooh’s head that there are Heffalumps and Woozles out to steal the bear’s honey (Pooh attempts to correct Tigger by saying they’re elephants and weasels. I wonder sometimes who is the one “with very little brains.”) That sequence has always been a bit weird to me, not as cute and cuddly as the rest.

blustery day

After Pooh’s dream, the windy day has become a stormy night and the following morning, the Rain, Rain, Rain Came Down, Down Down. The lyrics tell the brief tale of Piglet’s home flooding and washing him out the window. Pooh falls off a tree branch and they’re both caught. Christopher Robin starts to mount a rescue, sending Owl to locate their friends. A waterfall causes Piglet and Pooh to swap places; Pooh is now on the chair and Piglet is in the honey pot. They wash up at Christopher Robin’s place and Christopher Robin declares Pooh to be a hero for rescuing Piglet. They throw a party once the water has receded. Yet, all this time, Eeyore has been searching for a new house for Owl. He takes the group to a lovely tree with the sign “Trespassers Will” in front; Piglet’s house (the tale is it’s short for “Trespassers William,” Piglet’s grandfather). [Yes, as adults, we realize that it probably is the beginning of “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” or something. It’s adorable as a child]. Piglet is cheered as a hero for letting Owl have his house. Pooh declares that Piglet will live with him.

The next chapter is about bouncing. Rabbit has had enough of Tigger bouncing him and ruining his garden. He gets the idea to take Tigger into the woods and lose him. When they find him again, Tigger will be sorry and never bounce them again (children, this is not a safe, or smart idea). Instead, when Piglet, Pooh, and Rabbit take Tigger out the next day, it is them who end up getting lost in the mist. Pooh eventually leads Piglet out by listening to his stomach. Wandering around the forest for hours leads Rabbit’s mind to play tricks on him, scaring him with the sound of frogs and caterpillars munching on leaves. He’s subsequently bounced by Tigger, who leads him out; Rabbit’s plan backfired.
But Tigger gets himself into trouble nevertheless. The first snow of the season, he plays with Roo and they decide to “bounce,” not climb a tall tree. Tiggers, while not good at ice skating, are apparently scared of heights. Pooh, and Piglet, who have been following [their own] tracks, come across the pair and go to get help. Roo has no problem jumping down. The narrator has to flip the book so Tigger can slide down the text. Rabbit attempts to hold Tigger to his rash promise to never bounce again. But their other friends are all sad and miss the old Tigger, so Rabbit caves. Tigger also points out that Rabbit’s feet are made for bouncing.

In general, the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood are accepting of each other.  No one pushes one another to be different.  They all look up to Christopher Robin as their boy, but they also put up with Owl’s long stories (except when danger is imminent, such as the waterfall during the rainy day).  They don’t tell Eeyore off for constantly losing his tail and they don’t want to hurt his feelings when he finds Piglet’s house for Owl.  Kanga lets Roo play with Tigger, simply cautioning to “be careful” and bundle up, but she doesn’t criticize Tigger for bouncing to the top of a tree.  Rabbit tends to be the sourpuss of the group, openly disliking Tigger’s bouncing, but they encourage him to accept Tigger.  Piglet is never made to feel bad about being the smallest and he’s Pooh’s very best friend, an odd pair.  And while Pooh is a “silly old bear,” they listen to his ideas.  It was a very encouraging show as a child and demonstrates that you can be friends with anyone.

We come to the last chapter, where Christopher Robin has to go away to school. But he has a walk with his “silly old bear,” discussing “doing nothing,” and they’ll never forget each other. They stop at their iconic bridge and we’re left feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Winnie_the_Pooh_and_Christopher_Robin

When I was in Disney, I managed to capture a few pictures of Pooh throughout the park, but did not manage to meet him (if I ever go back, that is a goal).  We rode his ride and visited the shrubberies in England.  About the time I was born, Disney put out a cartoon series, The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which I watched for years as a small child; it was a staple on the Disney Channel. There have been numerous other movies and shows involving Pooh Bear. I’ve seen some, like The Search for Christopher Robin.  I did watch Goodbye Christopher Robin and that depressed me. I finished that movie feeling bad for ever liking Winnie the Pooh since it created bad memories for Christopher Robin. The more recent Christopher Robin movie, starring Ewan McGregor is happier. There are sad moments, as can be expected considering Christopher Robin is grown up, but the ending is happy (and in view of Mark Gatiss as Christopher’s boss, I see Mycroft from Sherlock and I want him taken down). So, Pooh and Robin Hood are certainly at the top of my list of Disney favorites; Pooh edges Robin out a little.

Questions?  Comments?  Who was your favorite childhood character?

Up Next: The Little Mermaid

Golly, What a Day

Robin Hood

This remains one of my favorite Disney movies and started my interest in British folklore. There is no historical proof of a singular “Robin Hood” existing but tales of him date to the fifteenth century. As with other films and shows about Arthurian legend, I’ll swing back around and post about other Robin Hood films.

Another storybook opening, and simplified history (taking a course in medieval history in college taught me that Richard was not the best king and the whole Plantagenet line is kind of messed up). Our narrator Alan-a-Dale, a rooster, informs us that this is the animal kingdom’s version of the tale and it is “what really happened.” Oo-de-lally is a fun diddy and introduces us to the characters. As an adult, I appreciate Little John cautioning Robin about the chances he’s taking. And as an adult, I recognize how many times Robin comes close to dying. As a child, I related more to Robin; “ha ha! They’ll never catch me!” The bit about “rob” being a naughty word is a bone tossed due to it being a children’s movie.

Robin_Hood_Disney

Little John and Robin are given the chance to further “borrow” from the rich when a royal procession passes through Sherwood Forest to collect taxes in Nottingham. To do so, they dress up as fortune-telling women. Sir Hiss is actually a typical royal advisor; attempting to be blunt, but also kissing up. Prince John is a whiny brat with an enlarged younger-sibling complex. It’s funny as a child when he sucks his thumb and throws a tantrum. And I laughed when Little John and Robin ran away with all that gold and Prince John’s robe.

While Prince John overshadows the Sherriff of Nottingham as the primary villain, the Sherriff is no picnic either. He blatantly steals from the injured and from a child on his birthday. Robin stops by, coming in as a blind beggar, to cheer the boy up. The kids lead us to the castle, where they and we in turn meet Maid Marian, and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Kluck. This is when we discover that Marian and Robin were sweethearts years ago, before Marian went to London (we’re never told why she went to London or what brought her back). It is also revealed that she is the niece of King Richard (which would technically make her Prince John’s niece as well). A phrase that adults catch that goes over children’s head is when Skippy shouts “death to tyrants!” We learn later, in school, that this is what John Wilkes Booth shouts after he’s shot President Lincoln. Make of that what you will. Remember: this is from the kid that thinks kisses are “sissy stuff.”

Once the children have left, Marian tells Kluck that she is still in love with Robin, but worries he’s forgotten her in the time she’s been gone. Then we see Robin humming, paying no attention to the dinner he is burning, because he’s thinking about Marian. And he still loves her, but feels he can’t marry her since he is an outlaw and that is not the life that she deserves. Little John and Friar Tuck both try to cheer him up, Tuck declaring that Richard will pardon Robin when he returns from the Crusades and the king will end up with “an outlaw for an in-law.” Oh, and to really cheer Robin up, there is an archery tournament the next day where Maid Marian will kiss the winner.

The tournament, as the merry band guesses, is Prince John’s plan to capture Robin. Robin has disguised himself as a stork (though Marian recognizes his eyes). But his skill raises suspicion and Hiss realizes who he is (there is a whole funny bit with him flying about in a balloon after being kicked out by Prince John and disguised Little John, then sealed in a barrel of ale by Alan and Tuck). When Robin wins the tournament, John cuts away his disguise and orders his immediate death (okay, a little dark for a kid). Marian pleads for Robin’s life to be spared, because she loves him. Robin returns her love, but Prince John won’t be swayed, shouting “off with his head!” when Robin loudly declares “long live King Richard!” Little John to the rescue! He threatens Prince John to let Robin go, but when the Sherriff discovers the subterfuge, a battle breaks out. Which was honestly my favorite part of the movie as a kid…and still is. Marian at first seems like a typical damsel in distress, calling for Robin to help her. But she does throw a pie to distract a vulture. She eagerly accepts Robin’s marriage proposal and agrees to a honeymoon in “London, Normandy, and sunny Spain.” (The movie does get some historical notes correct: mentioning the Normans and Normandy, Marian’s costume. However, Little John’s purple ruff is inaccurate; that fashion piece wouldn’t show up until Elizabeth I). The little football gag is hilarious, including the snippets of college fight songs.

phony king of england

Love is not my favorite Disney love song. Part of it stems from the scene being really boring as a kid, after the high energy of the battle. Phony King of England, on the other hand, is hilarious. And includes further nuggets of history. No, history books do not call him the “phony King of England.” The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain put out by Charles Phillip describes John as “an unprincipled opportunist…[who] made a series of bad decisions in pursuit of short-term advantage (46).” He was known as Lackland due to being the younger son, and losing territory in France that had been gained by his father, Henry II. His taxation policies when he fought to reclaim that land led to the barons’ revolt which brought about the Magna Carta, which “guaranteed the reform of royal abuses of power and turned out to be the first step in establishing constitutional government in England (47).” It was true that Eleanor of Aquitaine (a truly awesome queen) favored elder brother Richard over John, but their father favored him (not that it helped when both sons revolted). “Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst,” is rather true. There have been no other “Johns” in the royal family. [Further historical note: John at least had children to succeed him; Richard did not. Richard also was rarely in England due to either being on Crusade, captured, or simply preferring France. Can you tell where my interests lay in college? lol]

 

Disney note: it has been pointed out and I can verify after watching Disney movies for the past month or so, that the dance scene in Robin Hood borrows from Jungle Book and Aristocats. I see nothing wrong with the fact and just find it a bit of a “fun fact.”

Continuing on! Prince John is furious now, between Robin’s escape and the peasants’ irreverence. He’s tripled taxes and thus, most everyone is in jail due to their inability to pay. When the Sherriff pays a visit to Friar Tuck and takes the lone coin from the poor box, Tuck kicks the lackey out and they fight in the churchyard. Tuck is arrested for treason. Prince John sentences him to be hung in the morning in an effort to draw out Robin and thus make it a double hanging (again, a bit dark for a kids’ film). Robin re-uses his blind beggar disguise to gain information from the Sherriff (Trigger is a bit paranoid, but Nutsy and the Sherriff are both idiots). Robin and Little John plan a jailbreak (Marian and Kluck must have stayed back in Sherwood Forest). Little John will take care of the jail and Robin will go after Prince John’s gold.

And they’re almost successful. Hiss wakes up as Robin grabs the last bag of gold, but Robin escapes on his zip line and Little John has the rest of the prisoners loaded on a cart. But one of the baby bunnies has been left behind. Robin sends the rest on and he goes back. The guards manage to close the gate, but the bunny fits through; Robin climbs. The Sherriff chases him into the tower and his torch lights the room on fire. Robin escapes to the roof, but the flames still lick at him. This remains a bit of a nail-biter and I can remember being worried during this scene as a child and almost in tears when Robin jumps and the arrows seem to have possibly killed him, one sticking through his hat. It doesn’t help that Little John and Skippy are worried and almost in tears themselves. Happily, Robin is alive and shouts “a pox on the phony king of England!” Prince John is incensed again and pushed over the edge when Hiss points out his flaws and mentions that his mother’s castle is now on fire. The Prince chases Hiss with a stick, thumb in his mouth again, Hiss crying for help because “he’s gone stark-raving mad!”

The final scenes show that Robin Hood has been pardoned and there’s a wedding; his and Marian’s. King Richard has returned and “straightened everything out.” The monarch chuckles to Tuck that he now has “an outlaw for an in-law,” quoting the friar’s prediction. Prince John and his cronies have been arrested and are shown to be toiling in the rock field. The carriage is reminiscent of Cinderella’s (and Marian’s dress and the bouquet are not historically accurate, but it’s a children’s movie and that is what we are familiar with in regards to a wedding). And they live happily ever after!

As I stated in the beginning, Robin Hood remains one of my favorite Disney movies. It’s got lots of action, a little bit of a love story; though I’ve always enjoyed it for the tale solely about Robin. To me, the music isn’t quite as good as the soundtracks from the eighties and nineties (I’ve got nothing against the Sherman Brothers; I love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins [those will be mentioned in a future musical section]). But I’d love to hear what you guys think. Do you have a favorite folk hero? Favorite period in history?

Next Time: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

“Because a Cat’s the Only Cat Who Knows Where it’s At”

The Aristocats

A play on the word “aristocrats,” ’tis a tale of a family of aristocratic cats in early twentieth-century Paris. Their owner, typically referred to as Madame, though occasionally referred to as “Adelaide” by the elderly lawyer, is a former opera singer (her favorite role was Carmen, from Bizet’s opera of the same name [the song playing on the record player is Habarnera]). Her dearest companions are her four cats; Duchess and her kittens Toulouse (a nod toFrench artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec), Berlioz (a reference to French composer Hector Berlioz) and Marie (an homage to Marie Antoinette, most likely). They are cared for by indulgent butler, Edgar. Except when Edgar eavesdrops on Madame’s conversation with her lawyer, he discovers that he will inherit her vast fortune after the cats.

kitten trio

One could call Madame a crazy cat lady; leaving a family of cats a fortune seems…ridiculous on a level. They’re cats; what are they going to do with it? But I view her sympathetically with Duchess. She’s an old woman who has admitted she has no living relatives (we don’t know if she was ever married, ever had any children) and her closest companions have been this family of cats. So, if she wants to, why not leave the money to the cats?

madame adelade

Duchess carries on her day, heedless of Edgar’s plotting and scheming, educating her offspring to be proper aristocrats. Toulouse practices his painting while Berlioz accompanies Marie practicing her Scales and Arpeggios. Toulouse and Berlioz are typical brothers, who like to roughhouse a bit (the piano gets some paint on it at one point and they practice fighting alley cats) while Marie is a little diva, swooning at romantic phrases and insisting she’s a lady. “Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them.” Her brothers’ response to her insisting “ladies first,” is that she is “not a lady, you’re nothing but a sister!” Duchess keeps patient control of them. Their lunch, served by Edgar, includes sleeping pills so he can remove them from the house that evening quietly.

He drives his motorbike out into the country and runs into two hounds, Napoleon and Lafayette (yes, the movies does indeed take place in Paris. If Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower aren’t enough proof). A wild and slightly improbable chase later, the basket with Duchess and her kittens is left under a bridge. A storm wakes them up and they realize what has happened. They take shelter in their basket and wait for morning.

Morning brings Thomas O’Malley Cat singing an introduction (with words that I am not sure of to this day). Duchess is the only cat visible during his exposition, so he flirts. He’s flustered by the appearance of her kittens and almost rescinds his offer of help. Duchess, while very ladylike, does not hesitate to set off with her children. O’Malley comes to his senses and scares up a ride for them (Marie spends a portion of the movie as the damsel in distress). When they’re kicked off the truck by a “horrible human,” the group attempts to take the train tracks. An actual train chases them off and Marie is in distress again. That escapade introduces them to Abigail and Amelia Gabble, very silly English geese. (Their giggling is incessant). With them they do manage to return to Paris and meet up with “Uncle Waldo,” who is “marinated.” He seems a harmless enough drunk, but as an adult, I take it with a grain of salt. (Abigail and Amelia giggle throughout)

Back at Madame’s mansion, she has discovered her beloved cats missing. Edgar brags to the horse, Frou Frou, and mouse, Roquefort (a French cheese) that he is the now famous catnapper from the paper, though he realizes he lost some items when he abandoned the cats. He must retrieve them before they’re found by the police. This leads to another run in with Lafayette and Napoleon (who still asserts he is the leader and he’ll decide).

It is too late in the evening for Duchess and her kittens to return to Madame, so they crash at O’Malley’s pad where Scat Cat and the gang are swinging. (I used to like Everybody Wants to Be a Cat more before it was part of a medley for a synchronized swimming routine. It took several years before I could listen to it again.) I think I even cringed as a child at some of the stereotypical racial characterizations; I knew that was not how Asians should be portrayed, it was demeaning. The song is still “bouncy,” as Berlioz states. There’s a harp interlude that I always forget is part of the song. It’s a nice demonstration that both sides can appreciate each style. Once the kittens are asleep, Thomas and Duchess have a conversation. Duchess wants to stay with Thomas, but she won’t leave Madame. Madame loves them very much and would miss them terribly. Berlioz sadly sums up the children’s feelings: “Well, we almost had a father.”
scat cat

O’Malley is still a gentle-cat and sees Duchess and the kittens home. To be grabbed by Edgar again and locked in a trunk to be sent to Timbuktu. Roquefort is sent to fetch O’Malley, who sends him to Scat Cat (real smart, Tom, sending a mouse to a gang of cats). They attack Edgar, with some help from Frou Frou, and he switches places with Duchess et al and he’s carted off to Timbuktu instead. Madame is happily reunited with her companions, and gladly adds another man to the house. She comments to her lawyer that the new will should include any offspring Thomas and Duchess have, both of whom seem open to the idea. Madame blithely mentions that if Edgar knew about the will, he would not have left. I guess she thought that Edgar had just run off. In addition, Madame has started a new foundation, giving a home to all the alley cats of Paris (so she can enjoy the swing music).

I tend to associate this movie with my mother, since she loves cats. The kittens are adorable and act like human siblings; Duchess is a remarkable female feline, with all of the poise and manners of breeding, but she’s also able to accept and befriend those of a lower class, without being condescending. Overall, it would rank under Jungle Book, but certainly higher than some other Disney movies (Lady and the Tramp, for instance. I didn’t mind puppies and dogs in 101 Dalmatians, but I’m not fond of Lady and the Tramp).

Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Up Next: Robin Hood

“Man Cub”

A quick note first: this may seem to be posted early, but I’m attempting to increase the number of posts per week.  I cannot guarantee strict consistency of two posts per week; I work in retail and we are coming upon a busy time of year.  But I have so many more movies and some TV shows I’d like to get to!

Jungle Book

Based on the “Mowgli” stories of Rudyard Kipling (I think I tried to read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi when I was young; if I finished it, I didn’t like it). Based in India, it tells the story of a young “man cub” Mowgli who was lost as an infant in the jungle. He’s found by a panther, Bagheera, but taken to a family of wolves. Ten years later, a threat returns to the jungle; the tiger, Shere Kahn. The “man cub” must return to the “man village;” Shere Kahn fears and hates men and the tiger will not rest until Mowgli is dead and will kill any who protect the boy. Bagheera volunteers to lead Mowgli back to the village.

jungle book cover
The cover I remember from video tapes

Mowgli does not understand why he has to leave the only home he’s ever known. Along the way, Bagheera and Mowgli run into Kaa, the snake, who attempts to hypnotize Mowgli in order to eat him. Then they meet a herd of elephants, under the leadership of Colonel Hathi (with a catchy marching cadence). Mowgli seems to enjoy copying other animals’ mannerisms and continues to put up a fuss about leaving. At the end of his patience, Bagheera first growls at the child, “you’re going if I have to drag you every step of the way” (I’m sure this is what every parent tells a wayward child at some point) and finally exclaims that Mowgli is on his own!

Well, Mowgli next meets Baloo, a sloth bear (I didn’t realize what sort of bear he was until recently; as a child, he was always a bear. Not the same as Winnie the Pooh, but a bear nevertheless; possibly classified as a “grey bear” compared to a “black bear” or “grizzly bear.”) And Baloo is the opposite of Bagheera, who seems practical, while Baloo sings about the Bare Necessities and a carefree lifestyle. I’m still not sure what a “paw paw” or “prickly pear” are, but they were fun as a kid. [Upon re-watching, he’s almost a prequel to Timon and Pumba: carefree life, no worries, eat bugs.] Baloo takes an instant liking to “little britches” and quickly adopts the boy as his own cub. He promises Mowgli that he can stay in the jungle with “good ol’ Papa Bear.”

I Wanna Be Like You
“I Wanna Be Like You”

Until the monkeys nab him and take him to the ancient ruins to meet King Louie. The orangutan wants to Be Like You and makes a deal with the man cub; he’ll help Mowgli stay in the jungle in exchange for knowledge on how to make “man’s red flower” aka, fire. But Mowgli doesn’t know how to make fire, which we find out is one of Shere Kahn’s greatest fears (this may be why Louie wants to know how to create it). Mowgli is in fact rescued by Bagheera and Baloo and while he sleeps that evening, the two adults have a discussion; Mowgli must go back to the man village; he will be safer there, Baloo alone cannot protect him. When the bear tells the boy the news come morning, Mowgli runs…into Kaa again.

In the meantime, we are introduced to Shere Kahn. His deer hunt (yes, there are apparently deer in the jungle in India) is interrupted by the elephant brigade and he hears the news about a lost man cub. He was not aware that there was a man cub in the jungle. (Good going, heroes) So the tiger has joined the hunt for the man cub. Kaa has managed to hypnotize Mowgli again and prevent Shere Kahn from finding the boy, but Mowgli wakes and pushes the python out of the tree, again. Mowgli next comes across a group of vultures (nice ones, based off of the Beatles), but by this point, he’s depressed that none of his “friends” want to keep him around. All he wants to do is stay in the jungle and they keep making him leave. The vulture quartet explain What Friends Are For (they’ve never met an animal they didn’t like…adults get the double meaning), though they’re interrupted at the end with Shere Kahn’s appearance. Mowgli, being young and stupid, isn’t afraid of Shere Kahn and refuses to run, even when the tiger gives him a “sporting” head start. Luckily, Baloo arrives to grab the tiger’s tail and a rain storm picks up. Lightning strikes a tree, creating fire and the vultures urge Mowgli to act. The boy grabs a lit branch and ties it to Shere Kahn’s tail. The tiger runs off in fear; except he’s already struck down Baloo. Bagheera gives a touching eulogy…but Baloo’s not really dead.

Baloo declares “nothin or nobody gonna come between” him and his cub. Until they hear odd singing; a young girl is fetching water from the river. Mowgli wants a better look and (falls in love, I guess). Baloo urges him to come back to the jungle; Bagheera urges that he goes on to his own kind. Mowgli follows the girl into the village. The End.

In 2016, Disney re-made the animated tale into live action. I have seen it; though I haven’t been able to get my hands on it again. I do remember it being a more mature tale; Shere Kahn kills Mowgli’s wolf father. The film shows Mowgli as more human; using “tricks” to accomplish tasks rather than imitating other animals. I enjoy the jazzy soundtrack from the animated movie; they tried with Bare Necessities, but some of the charm was lost. The newer rendition of I Wanna Be Like You is dark and foreboding and Louie was large and definitely not Mowgli’s friend. The end is opposite from the animated; Mowgli does use fire to defeat Shere Kahn, but he stays in the jungle, rather than return to the man village.

2016 jungle book
Cover of the 2016 live-action version

There is sequel planned for the live-action movie, and a movie titled Mowgli due out in 2019 (directed by Andy Serkis [Gollum/Smegol] and starring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and Benedict Cumberbatch), though I’m not sure how closely it will resemble the Disney story. There was a direct sequel to the animated film – I saw it once and all I can remember is that Mowgli ended up in the jungle again, somehow, and there have been numerous other iterations of the Jungle Book story. I, however, remember the characters in the cartoon TaleSpin (I still have some of the episodes released on tapes), where Baloo is a pilot, Shere Kahn is a villainous business-tiger, and Louie runs a club. (I think some of my fondness stems from the fact that Baloo had a plane and my father loves flying and planes). [Fun note: the air pirates from TaleSpin show up in the rebooted DuckTales cartoon, with added singing. Further proof that I have not outgrown Disney]

talespin logo
TaleSpin logo

Oh, and if any of the voices from the animated film sound familiar; they are. Phil Harris was Baloo (Bill Murray in the live-action) and he went on to voice O’Malley in Aristocats and Little John in Robin Hood (the animation style of the bears are very similar as well). Sebastian Cabot was Bagheera (Ben Kinsgley’s role in the live-action) and we’ve previously heard him as Sir Ector in Sword in the Stone and the always trusty Narrator in several movies. Sterling Holloway was Kaa (Scarlett Johanson in the live-action) and he’s the ever lovable Winnie the Pooh [I try to ignore that fact because that just makes things a little creepy]. Colonel Hathi was voiced J. Pat O’Malley, who seems to have a long run with Disney. Mowgli and Christopher Robin share Bruce Reitherman as a voice. Idris Elba as Shere Kahn and Christopher Walken as King Louie are other big name stars in the live-action adaptation.

In the spectrum of “Disney movies I like,” Jungle Book falls in the middle. I’d probably watch it if it was on television and didn’t have other plans. As a child, I thought it was fun for another child to live with animals; we like imitating them anyway. And Mowgli at least tries to make friends with other animals. I sided with Baloo and wanted Mowgli to stay with his jungle buddies. And the girl’s actions, even to me as a child, were obvious that she was trying to get Mowgli to go with her.

As always, let me know if you have any comments, or questions. What was your favorite Disney cartoon?

Next Time: Aristocats

“Wart” is a Horrible Name for a Child

The Sword in the Stone

This was the first iteration of the Arthurian legend I was exposed to; luckily it was not the version that got me interested in the legend. Overall, it has a good message for kids about education and that the best way to move up in the world and to be someone of importance is to have a solid foundation. Brains over brawn, and all that. But just like the source material, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I contest it’s characterization. (A tiny bit of background on me as I avoid delving into a rant…I have done some reading on Arthurian legend and my capstone project from college was on Morgan le Fae, where I read The Once and Future King, Le Morte d’Arthur, Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave sequence, and The Mists of Avalon among other interpretations and I am aware there are several ways of looking at the legend.)

Carrying on…Disney’s movie opens on a storybook, though added this time, singing! And glosses over a decent chunk of the legend…like Uther. Arthur’s father. Though, considering he committed adultery in order to beget Arthur…not the most child-friendly backstory. Disney sums it up as “the good king died.” The country descended into chaos, but lo, magically, a sword appeared in a stone in London town (historical note: not called London at that time). Inscribed upon the sword in gold letters: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of England.” Many tried and failed. The sword is eventually forgotten and England falls into the Dark Ages. (Further historical note: that is not how the Dark Ages happened).

sword in the stone
Forgot that I had done this…there is an “attraction” at Disney where you can attempt to pull the sword from the stone. “King” has been changed to “Ruler” in the inscription.

We first meet an old man with a long white beard, blue robe and hat, complaining about the lack of electricity and plumbing; our first hint that he is not all he seems since even as kids we have figured out those didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. He’s preparing for “someone important” to drop by, as he tells his talking owl, Archimedes. Fate has willed that he will guide a young boy to his place in the world. We next meet said young, scrawny boy – Arthur, called Wart, and muscular Kay. Wart messes up Kay’s shot and rushes into the woods to retrieve the arrow. Demonstrating his lack of grace again, he falls into the old man’s home (landing on the carefully placed chair). The old man introduces himself as Merlin, a wizard who can see centuries into the future (and possibly time travel; in The Once and Future King, White writes that Merlin lives backwards in time). He has futuristic plans and models laying about his home, such as a locomotive and starts expounding that children need a good education. He agrees to accompany Wart back to the castle to begin. A memorable scene of nonsense words packs up his belongings, though Merlin cautions young Wart that magic won’t answer all problems.

Wart’s foster father, Sir Ector is against Merlin’s insistence on an education for Wart at first. His method for raising the klutz is a demerit system and assigning chores (not wholly a bad notion, it does teach responsibility, the excess is the problem). Pellinore brings word of a [jousting] tournament in London that will decide who will be King of England (question: was this not tried before?) Wart correctly explains that only men of proper birth can become knights (and thus, compete in the tournament); Wart being an orphan can only hope to train as a squire, an assistant to a knight. Merlin is tricky and wrangles an agreement for education from Ector. Merlin’s method of teaching involves transforming himself and Wart into different animals. Their first go-about is as fish where we are treated to a diddy teaching us about “for every to there is a fro, for every up there is a down,” and ultimately, brains beat brawn.

Merlin’s next lesson, after magically setting the dishes to wash themselves (not quite as disastrous as Mickey’s stunt with the mops) is to turn him and the boy into squirrels, whose lives are full of trouble. We learn alongside Wart about love (and how persistent female squirrels are about pursuing a mate). I felt a little bad with Wart at how broken-hearted the young girl squirrel was when she found out Wart was human. Next, Wart is turned into a bird and is briefly tutored by Archimedes. Unfortunately, they come across another house in the woods; this time, belonging to Mad Madam Mim. (Note: Mim does not appear in other versions of the Arthurian legend, though there are several other witches, including the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fae, and Queen Mab). She takes delight in gruesome and grim games and wishes to destroy Wart since he is friends with Merlin. Merlin shows up to save Wart and is challenged to a wizard’s duel (different from Harry Potter), where the opponents transform themselves into different animals to order to kill each other. Merlin wins in the end by becoming a germ (to her purple dragon; the music at that point reminded me of the music from Sleeping Beauty when Maleficent was a dragon).

merlin and mim wizard duel

Wart is given the news at the castle that he will accompany Ector and newly knighted Sir Kay to London for the tournament. Merlin is disappointed and a bit outraged that Wart still prefers to be a squire rather than continuing his education. He blows himself to Bermuda and the tournament arrives. Unfortunately, Wart has forgotten Kay’s sword back at the inn, which is now locked. He spies a sword in a churchyard, stuck in an anvil and pulls it out. Pellinore realizes that the sword young Wart handed Kay is the legendary Sword in the Stone. He and other knights urge Arthur to show them where he retrieved it and pull it out again. He does so and is crowned King of England. Merlin comes back when Arthur wishes for help ruling the country. The wizard’s parting words are about Arthur’s tale living on for centuries, even being made into “motion pictures.”

I’ll finish the Disney movies and circle back to other interpretations of Arthur (I loved BBC’s Merlin, despite its deviation from traditional legend). It’s a subject I’d love to do more research on; I’ve got some books, but a very long reading list. Until then, any questions? Comments? What’s your favorite legend or myth?

Up Next: Jungle Book

Flameo

Book Three: Fire

The first episode, Awakening, catches us up on the aftermath of Crossroads of Destiny. Katara did indeed save Aang. The young heroes were able to join with Hakoda and they took over a Fire Nation ship. Their invasion plans are modified slightly since the Earth King in is hiding, traveling the world as a peasant; they’ll gather together their ragtag team of friends and allies.

While the heroes hide out in the Fire Nation, Zuko’s princely title is restored. Lo and Lee announce to a crowd that their clever and beautiful princess Azula found her brother in Ba Sing Se and together, they took down the city and the Avatar fell. And the Earth Kingdom fell. After three years, the Fire Nation’s prince has returned. There are cheers from the crowd. But Zuko soon discovers that while he desired his father’s love and affection and believed that redemption of his honor lay with him, in conforming to what was expected of him, he lost himself. He visits Iroh in prison and begs advice, but his uncle is silent; this is still Zuko’s journey and one he must travel himself.

The Headband is silly for the most part, but does establish that not everyone in the Fire Nation is evil. Just like not everyone in the Earth Kingdom is good. A whole nation cannot be condemned. The heroes help out a Fire Nation village in The Painted Lady, Katara declaring sharply to her brother that she “will never, ever, turn my back on people who need me!”

Sokka’s Master brings to the forefront Sokka’s dejection that he is not as powerful as the benders. They urge him to find a master and Piando, the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation agrees to teach him, even after secretly knowing that the young man is Water Tribe. Sokka gains confidence and an ally.

Bonding
The Fire Nation teens bonding over causing destruction at a party; because that’s how they get their kicks.

The Beach exhibits that even the scary and villainous Fire Nation young people are still teenagers. We learn a lot more about their dynamics. Ty Lee ran off to the circus to prevent becoming part of a matched set with six identical sisters. Mai’s mother was demanding and she was forced to stay quiet and well-behaved as a child (following the old adage that children are to remain seen, not heard). Zuko reveals that he’s angry at himself, confused about right and wrong. Azula gives a tiny insight, claiming that she does not care that her own mother thought she was a monster. Azula’s military tactics are so ingrained in her that she exercises them at the volleyball-type game (after Zuko dramatically removes his robe and doves appear out of nowhere and there are screaming girls).

The Avatar and the Fire Lord explains more fully the connection between Aang and Zuko. Zuko’s paternal great-grandfather was of course Fire Lord Sozin, while his maternal great-grandfather was Avatar Roku and they incidentally were best friends. Until Sozin’s ambition drove them to separate paths. He wanted to share the Fire Nation’s prosperity with the world and expand his realm into an empire. Roku showed Sozin mercy due to their friendship and Sozin even helped Roku stop a volcano, yet he still left him to die. Iroh finally speaks to his nephew, explaining that Zuko needed to learn this history to understand the battle within himself between good and evil. He has it within him to cleanse the sins of previous generations and restore balance; just like Aang as the Avatar.

The Runaway broadens the relationship between Katara and Toph. Toph bucks at Katara’s motherly nature, since she ran away from parents who were constantly telling her what she could and couldn’t do and never listening in return. And Katara sees a child, someone to care about. We also get insight from Sokka as to a reason for this; she stepped up when their mother died at a young age and by this time, doesn’t know anything different. Both Sokka and Katara deserve a hug after Sokka’s statement that he doesn’t remember his mother’s face, because Katara has filled that spot for so long. The episode ends with Katara helping Toph write a letter to her parents.

Katara is again in the spotlight in The Puppetmaster, when the four young heroes cross paths with Hama, the last waterbender from the Southern Tribe, in a small Fire Nation village. Except she’s bitter and exacts revenge for her treatment by kidnapping villagers during the full moon, when she has the power to bloodbend (using waterbending to bend the water or blood within a body). Katara eagerly takes lessons from Hama at first, except she’s scared and questions the morality of bloodbending, but when Hama makes Aang and Sokka fight each other, she has no choice but to use bloodbending to stop Hama. She sobs to Sokka and Aang afterwards.

Nightmares and Daydreams gets odd at the end; when Aang hallusicantes from sleep deprivation, Momo and Appa can talk. To help, the other three make a soft bed for him, encouraging him that he’s ready for the showdown; he’s been training since the day he met Katara and Sokka. On the other side of the war; we get a glimpse of Zuko’s life as an accepted prince. Servants waiting for his every whim, adoring fans, an affectionate girlfriend; yet when he finds out that there is another war meeting that he did not know about, his old insecurities come back. However, his father halts the meeting and sends for him. He was at the Fire Lord’s right hand, the “perfect prince,” but Zuko wasn’t himself.

The Gaang
Their new looks

The Day of Black Sun arrives. The heroes change back into their old clothes and here we can see the changes months of traveling have wrought; they’re leaner, they’re older. Katara wears her hair different, looser. Sokka’s hair has grown in and he looks more like a warrior. Aang shaves his head and wears a partially revealing top. Toph dons armor. They’re reunited with old allies and during their last break before battle, the teens’ bid each other a farewell. Aang gives Katara a quick kiss and sets off for the palace. Yet, when he arrives, the palace is empty; no Fire Lord in sight.

The Fire Nation was prepared for the invasion, a callback to Azula’s infiltration into Ba Sing Se as a Kyoshi Warrior. Hakoda is injured during their invasion and Sokka takes over as the leader. It’s Sokka who figures out that the Fire Lord would be in a secret bunker near the capital, not hiding on a remote island. He takes Toph and Aang, while Katara remains with Hakoda to continue healing him. Azula is still a few steps ahead and is waiting for them with Dai Li agents, distracting them from the Fire Lord. Even without being able to firebend, she eludes their attacks. Just when they’re ready to ignore her and find the Fire Lord, she taunts Sokka with information about Suki. Sokka demands answers, not willing to let another woman he cares for die, draining the last of their time. When they rejoin the rest of the invasion force, the Fire Nation has resumed their attacks, forcing Hakoda to instruct Katara and Sokka to escape with Aang; they are their best chance in the long run; Aang has to be free in order to keep hope alive. Bato makes the decision that the young members flee on Appa; the older ones will accept capture.

Zuko’s path has him change back into traveling clothes, removing the image of a prince. He vows to set things right. The first step: finally confronting Ozai.

“I’m not taking orders from you anymore.”
“You will obey me, or this defiant breath will be your last.”
“Think again! I am going to speak my mind, and you are going to listen. For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted. But really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me, a thirteen-year-old boy to an Agni Kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?”
“It was to teach you respect.”
“It was cruel! And it was wrong.”
“Then you’ve learned nothing.”
“No, I’ve learned everything! And, I’ve had to learn it on my own.”

Zuko quietly informs the Fire Lord that if the world doesn’t want to destroy itself, it needs peace and kindness, and openly acknowledging Iroh’s influence. He’s going to free him, then join the Avatar to bring down Ozai. When Ozai questions why he doesn’t just kill him himself, Zuko replies that the task is the Avatar’s destiny; he will discover his own.

Zuko_confronting_Ozai

Ozai has one final taunt: information about Zuko’s mother. Ozai admits that he was willing to kill Zuko years ago, but Ursa proposed another plan in order to protect Zuko. A plan in which she committed vicious treason. She was banished as consequence. Ozai growls that Zuko will not be so lucky, the fading eclipse granting Ozai the ability to shoot lighting, which Zuko deflects and disappearing in the aftermath. When Zuko arrives at his uncle’s prison cell, he finds that Iroh has already escaped.

The final shot is Zuko following Appa in his war balloon.

They end up at the Western Air Temple, which is built upside down underneath a cliff. For Zuko, it’s come full circle; the Western Air Temple was where he started his search for the Avatar a week after he was scarred and banished. Now, he approaches the core four heroes, offering to teach Aang firebending. They do not trust him at first, for good reasons. Well, Toph, is willing to give him a chance, but she startles him and he accidentally burns her feet. When they go to confront him, Combustion Man (an assassin Zuko had hired to cover the fact that Aang survived Ba Sing Se) attacks and Zuko fights against him. This convinces Sokka. Zuko’s apology to Toph, speaking of the danger of firebending, convinces Aang. Katara goes along with the rest of the group, but threatens Zuko in private later. They both know he’s struggled with right and wrong in the past and she will not hesitate to permanently end Zuko’s destiny if he turns again. A glimpse that these characters are not children any longer. They’re involved in a war and hard calls will have to be made.

I love Firebending Masters; it shows more background into how bending was developed in different nations. We’ve already learned at the North Pole that the first waterbenders learned the push and pull motions from the moon. Toph tells of how the badger moles were the original Earthbenders, using it as she does, as an extension of themselves since they too are blind. Aang says that the original airbenders learned from the sky bisons.

Ran_and_Shaw
The original masters

Zuko and Aang must learn from the original firebending masters because Zuko’s change in sides has affected his firebending. Dragons are the original firebenders but they were hunted to extinction in the past hundred years; Iroh reportedly killed the last dragon. However, an ancient civilization has ruins near to the temple, so the two young men hope to discover some sort of knowledge. The ancient civilization is actually still secretly alive and lead the Fire Nation Prince and Avatar to the spirits Ran and Cha to judge whether they are worthy. Ran and Cha are a pair of red and blue dragons. Iroh had not killed them; they had judged him and found him worthy of firebending knowledge; he lied to protect them. Aang and Zuko are shown visions of the true nature of firebending; fire is life, not just destruction. Aang gains the confidence to try firebending again (after burning Katara in season one) and Zuko has found a new source for his inner fire, a drive to bring peace rather than typical rage.

After their return, Sokka is desperate to rescue his father and other warriors. The invasion was his mistake and thus his job to fix. “I need to regain my honor,” Sokka tells Zuko. So the two sneak off to Boiling Rock prison. Once there, they find Suki, but no Hakoda. They gain a few minor tagalongs who utilize their first escape plan (and fail) while Zuko, Sokka, and Suki stay another day to discover if Hakoda is part of the new transfer of prisoners. He is. Sokka catches him up and they develop a new plan; take the warden captive and ride out on the gondola.

Wrenches are thrown in the work when first Mai, then Azula and Ty Lee show up. Mai wants answers as to why Zuko left. To her, he is a traitor while he sees it as part of his destiny to save his country. Azula and Ty Lee attempt to stop the heroes’ escape and the teens face each other on top of the gondola. Mai takes Zuko’s side on the ground, giving them the opportunity to get away. Azula is furious. But when she goes to eliminate Mai, Ty Lee sides with Mai, using her chi blocking to take out Azula. They do not have the chance to flee; Azula orders them locked up.

The two-part episode does a good job of showing Zuko and Sokka interact; they’re a similar age and it’s been pointed out by fans that they both have younger sisters that are naturally gifted benders, both are missing mothers, and desperate to prove themselves to their fathers. They even reminisce over girlfriends on the flight to Boiling Rock. During their escape, Sokka catches Zuko when the prince leaps from the platform for the departing gondola. And through the battle on top the gondola against Azula, they effortlessly cover each other.

Boling Rock ends with the Water Tribe family being reunited. Only to have to break apart at the beginning of The Southern Raiders when Azula attacks the temple, hoping to become an only child. Brother and sister face off again, allowing the core heroes to fly away on Appa (and another daring rescue for Zuko…please stop attempting to fall to your death). But when they’re all joking around the fire later, it’s clear that Katara still does not trust Zuko. Zuko approaches Sokka, inquiring about the day his mother died. It seems as if Katara has tied her anger about that event to her anger at Zuko, and he cares about what she thinks of him. We flash back to the raid on the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka went to help his father and the other warriors when the black snow began to fall. Katara had gone to their mother, only to find a strange man in their hut. Kya, their mother, soothed Katara and sent her after her father. When the rest of the family returned, the man was gone and their mother was dead. A few more questions reveal that the group responsible was the Southern Raiders. Zuko offers to take Katara to their headquarters where she can exercise justice. Aang counsels forgiveness. Katara’s not sure she can do that. Sokka even advises that Katara let go of her rage; Kya was his mother too. “Then you didn’t love her like I did!” is the biting response. Just, ouch.

Katara willingly uses bloodbending to get her answers, unsettling even Zuko. When she faces Yan Ra (a despicable man, offering his own, admittedly annoying, mother as recompense) she almost does it. They discover that Kya had died protecting the last waterbender of the South Pole. Katara is ready to unleash all her power as a master, shooting ice daggers at him, seconds away from ending him. But she won’t become the same as him, empty inside. Back at their camp, Aang is proud of her; but she didn’t forgive Yan Ra. She is however, ready to forgive Zuko.

The show does its own recap special; The Ember Island Players where the teens engage in a popular fanfic plotline, watching their own story play out as a stage performance. Their characters are exaggerated and annoy the heroes. Katara is overly dramatic, Toph is a man, Aang is a woman (oftentimes in traditional theatre, teenage boy parts are played by young woman, a popular example is “Peter Pan”), Sokka speaks only in quips. For Zuko, it’s his worse mistakes shoved in his face. The show-within-a-show plays up the fan pairing of Zuko and Katara, which upsets Aang. But it’s the end that really depresses our heroes; as a play put on in the Fire Nation, Azula and Ozai successfully kill Zuko and Aang, Ozai declaring “the world is mine!” and the crowd cheers. There is horror in the teenagers’ eyes.

Everything comes to a head in this season. It also really showcases that this war is being decided by children/teenagers. The main characters range between twelve and sixteen years old. Sokka is fifteen and takes charge of two major battles. Zuko is sixteen and crowned Fire Lord. Aang is twelve and confronts Ozai.

Ozai_versus_Avatar_Aang

The latter half of the season, Aang has been struggling with the dilemma of how to put an end to Ozai, claiming that violence is never the answer. He even greets the tyrant at their final battle saying they don’t have to fight. He was taught as an Air Nomad monk that all life is sacred and he cannot take another person’s life, no matter how horrible they are. The final duel starts with Aang fleeing from Ozai; he’s on the defense. Ozai shoots lightning at him and Aang redirects, like Zuko taught him; he has the perfect opportunity to end Ozai, but points it away. Ozai calls him weak, like his people, who are not worthy of existing in his world (megalomaniac much?). His last stand was to create a ball of rock surrounding him, but Ozai broke through. When that happened, a perfectly positioned nub of rock presses in on his scar, helping him unlock the Avatar State. He comes back powerful and effortlessly bends all four elements into an orbit around himself. Now it’s his turn to chase the self-proclaimed Phoenix King. This is the first time we’ve seen fear in Ozai’s eyes. Yet even then, when he is controlling all that power, Aang comes back and cannot deal a killing strike. Aang’s last mystical journey on the back of a lion turtle taught him to bend the energy within a body resulting in the Avatar taking away Ozai’s bending. (There’s a really cool visual where their bodies are overtaken by blue [Aang] and orange [Ozai] representing their wills. Ozai almost overtakes Aang, but he comes back stronger and brighter).

The final Agni Kai between Azula and Zuko, “the showdown that was always meant to be” is tragically beautiful. It is destructive and at least on Azula’s account, she has the intention of killing her brother. And it is quite possible that Zuko is willing to kill his sister, facing her so no one else will get hurt. But the imagery of blue and orange fire meeting, paired with the music, quiet and almost soothing in the background, is powerful. This isn’t some upbeat ride into danger or fanfare when the hero saves the day. We can hear the roar of the fire, balls of flame propelled at one another.

Azula_vs._Zuko

And Zuko has to taunt his sister (they’re still teenage siblings) about shooting lightning at him. He was not as successful the second time, primarily due to Azula shifting her aim to Katara. He’s unprepared and the angle is wrong and it’s not dissipated properly. It gets too close to his heart and he collapses. So Katara and Azula face off. Katara out tricks the princess, freezing her then chaining her to a grate. Finally, Katara is able to heal Zuko, exchanging thanks for saving each others’ lives.

We gain some sympathy for Azula in Book Three. All her life, she has been her father’s favorite and now that he’s bent on world domination and titles himself as the “Phoenix King” and Supreme Ruler of All, he passes on the now insignificant title of Fire Lord to Azula, explaining that he needs her at home. She fires back that “you can’t treat me like Zuko!” And with the betrayal of Ty Lee and Azula, her former staunchest supporters, Azula is paranoid. She’s learning that fear is not the best tactic to retain supporters. Mai told her “I love Zuko more than I fear you.” Azula banishes her servants, the Dai Li agents; everyone she was once close to, leaving her alone. She envisions her mother in the mirror, claiming that she is proud of her and loves her. Azula throws her hairbrush and cries. Zuko tells Katara that Azula is slipping; he can take her. When Katara defeats her, she’s left screaming and breathing fire before breaking into sobs. As the hallucinated Ursa says, Azula is confused. Like Zuko, she lost her drive. Her purpose for so long was to follow her father and now that Ozai has essentially cast her aside, she’s lost. Everyone she’s ever cared about, she’s pushed away.

Touching on the themes running throughout the show, the core troupe of heroes became their own family and that group was certainly more important than blood family. That is most clear in Zuko’s case, with both his sister and father the major threats, but he’s learned to rely on his uncle’s teaching. Katara fights to keep her family together, except she keeps getting ripped away from her father. Toph and Katara face off over the issue of family roles in the group. Zuko’s destiny is to restore the honor of the Fire Nation now that he has struggled and suffered and followed his own path. Ultimately, what all the young people learn through their adventures is that they can shape their own destinies and they decide on their own honor.

There are some paired-off couples at the end of the show, after Zuko has been crowned Fire Lord and promises to aid the Avatar in guiding the world into an era of peace. Sokka and Suki are together, exchanging a brief kiss before they’re separated during the air ship takedown. Mai returns for Zuko and there’s a kiss, though she warns him to “never break up with me again.” And the final shot of the show, before the ending title card is a silent scene between Katara and Aang, where they exchange a deep kiss.

I have to admit, I am in the camp in the fandom that prefers to pair Katara and Zuko. They’re a bit closer in age to one another and the show even demonstrates the awkwardness of younger Aang and older Katara. Aang takes the idea of stage-Katara together with stage-Zuko too seriously and pushes a kiss when she says she’s confused. Also, there’s the dynamic of opposites. They’re opposite elements and started off on opposite sides of the war; but they’re both passionate and they make a good team. Reminder, this is my opinion, others may have different views.

Recommendations:
Fanfiction:
SWCLC; has an awesome slightly AU (alternate universe) series called “Airbender’s Child” (I don’t want to give away too much, but it does involve Zuko in the gang a lot earlier). Also has an excellent story “Arranging Marriages” (again, AU) and a “Proposal” series.
YouTube:
ChannelAwesome: the Nostalgia Critic has an entire series of vlogs (video logs) on each episode of Last Airbender and a load of other content.
HelloFutureMe: also has a lot of content on Last Airbender and other categories that are near and dear to my heart.

Next Time: we continue down the path of memory lane to Disney, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Rockin’ and Rollin’

Book Two: Earth

Now that Aang has mastered waterbending, he must learn Earthbending. The plan is for the trio to go to Bumi in Omashu. Upon arrival back in the Earth Kingdom a general proposes the idea to simply master the Avatar State, bypassing mastering each element. That plan results in leveling his base and the teens continue on their journey, but the seed for exploring the Avatar State has been planted. New characters come into play. We’re introduced fully to Azula, the Fire Lord’s daughter, who has retained her father’s favor. Her father tasks her with bringing Iroh and Zuko home, for punishment we presume. She weaves a tale of regret to convince Zuko, but Iroh knows his brother well enough to not believe her, but follows in order to protect Zuko. The first episode of the season ends with the pair removing their ponytail and top knot, distinctions of their rank, I believe, known now as traitors to the Fire Nation.

Azula is joined by her friends, Mai and Ty Lee so they create an elite team to track Iroh and Zuko. Mai is skilled with throwing knives and Ty Lee is an acrobat who can block a person’s chi and bending abilities. Azula is already a gifted firebender, surpassing her brother on many respects and is extremely agile. My question is, what do they teach girls in the Fire Nation? On the one hand, cool, women should definitely be trained as warriors, if they want. On the other, they’re kids! Let’s make a whole bunch of mini assassins!

fire nation trio

The heroic trio is eventually joined by Toph, an awesome twelve-year-old girl who happens to be blind (I say “happen” because by the way she acts, you rarely notice, and yes, it defines her, but she is far more capable than most people give her credit) who learned Earthbending on her own and holds out against men who are far older and stronger than her. Her parents clearly do not understand her, only see her as “blind, tiny, and helpless” and feel that what’s best for her is being guarded twenty-four-seven.

Toph fits in with the gang pretty well, being of equal age to Aang and both are skilled benders of their own element. There do not seem to be many problems between Sokka and Toph, but she butts heads with Katara. They’re both young women used to fending for themselves. Toph has spent her childhood secretly bucking her parents’ rule and is not in a hurry to listen to someone else tell her what to do. It is an interesting counterpoint to Katara, who is accustomed to the rest of the group obeying her for the most part (well, Sokka is her older brother, so we can expect slight contention from time to time).

toph

At the end of Avatar Day Zuko told Iroh that he needed to find his own path, bringing us Zuko Alone, highlighting Zuko’s softer side. The royal family dynamics are…complicated. Zuko shows sympathy for his uncle at the death of his son and even before his banishment, he was trying to prove himself to his father and grandfather (I’m not sure that man even liked Zuko, calling him “pup” and a waste of time). Azula learned her ruthlessness from Ozai, who asked for Iroh’s birthright to be revoked since he abandoned his post at the death of his son. Azluon was also the one to tell Ozai (overheard by Azula) to sacrifice his own son in retaliation. His mother, Ursa’s seemingly last act was to visit Zuko in the middle of the night to say goodbye; “Everything I’ve done has been to protect you.”

This is all told in flashbacks that Zuko has while helping a family against army thugs. He bonds with the son, Li, showing him how to properly use dao blades and even gifting him his own dagger (a previous gift from Iroh), engraved with “never give up without a fight.” When Li is taken by the thugs, Zuko goes to rescue him and fights the crew. He easily dispatches the first three with minimal moves. However, when he’s knocked down by the leader, he comes back firebending. When finished, he reveals to the village “My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne.” He has always seen himself as this. He has told Iroh several times that he wants this throne back, his birthright, his kingdom. Even in exile, even branded as a traitor (as an old man points out) he is not ashamed of who he is. I was crushed when the villagers and the family turned on Zuko.

Bitter Work from the Avatar crew is hilarious. (Foofoocuddlypoops? Really, Sokka?) From Zuko’s camp, still heart wrenching. Even Iroh, recovering from a shot of lightning from Azula, agrees that the young woman is crazy and needs to go down; he tries to train Zuko to face her. More hidden depths for our favorite uncle: he recognizes that the world needs balance and the elements balance each other out, and within a person; if Zuko learns this and draws wisdom from others, he will be more powerful. Zuko can’t find the clarity of mind to create lightning, and can’t get Iroh or the weather to cooperate to test deflecting it. Yeah, he’s not talking about the storm at the end when he cries out “You’ve always thrown everything at me. I’ve taken it. Now I can give it back.” I just want to give him a hug (except he might shoot fire at me, so, I shall refrain).

Side note: I wonder what Sokka realized during his time trapped in Bitter Work? They broke to comedy before we could find out. We want more layers to this young man. The Library is actually Sokka’s idea. He wants a map and intelligence about the Fire Nation in order to formulate a plan, compared to the rest in the group who want mini vacations. The Library is overseen by an owl who does not want to give the heroes access, claiming that humans desire knowledge merely in an effort to destroy. They persuade, or trick him, only to discover that the Fire Nation records were burned (most likely Zhao; it’s insinuated that he learned of the Moon and Water Spirits in the library, so yes, the owl spirit had a point…he’s still creepy). Unfortunately, while Sokka is calculating a future solar eclipse, sandbenders steal Appa. Toph, who had no desire to go into a library, keeps the escape route open for the others to flee from the spirit’s wrath, but had to choose between her friends and Appa.

The loss of Appa, Aang’s longest companion, is too much for the kid. He wants to blame Toph, but it had been a difficult, but necessary decision. He goes off on his own in order to find Appa and Katara is left to handle Sokka, who has drunk hallucinogenic cactus juice (a hilarious bright spot in the episode) and Toph. Once again, she has to calm Aang down from the Avatar State. Character growth all around. We see Sokka’s analytical mind, Katara leading, Aang’s grief and pain, and Toph is feeling helpless and a little guilty for not being able to save Appa; she can’t see in her traditional manner on the sand.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh, still fleeing Azula, are attempting to make their way to Ba Sing Se. We’re introduced to the Order of the White Lotus (see Zuko, all those games your uncle played were important after all). In the next episode, the pair board a ferry, shared by Jet. Jet and Zuko almost bond, but Zuko won’t join Jet’s Freedom Fighters and Iroh subtlety bends fire in front of Jet, arousing his suspicions. That all comes to a head in City of Walls and Secrets when Jet attacks Zuko at the tea shop where he and Iroh, under the names Li and Mushi, work. An exciting battle of dual swords ensues and Jet is taken away by the authorities.

Katara, Sokka, Aang, and Toph take a harder path, leading a pregnant woman and her companions through the Serpent’s Pass, accompanied by Suki. Sokka is pleased to be reunited with the warrior, but after losing Yue, he’s scared to lose Suki as well. Just when you think it will all work out for the burgeoning couple, Suki’s duty keeps her with the other Kyoshi Warriors.

The message of hope is beaten into us in this episode. A sign posted at the entrance to the Pass warns travelers to “abandon hope.” Aang, in an effort to not let his emotions overtake him like they did in the desert, tells how the monks taught that hope was a distraction; Aang theorizes that they cannot afford to be distracted on the Pass and so maybe they should abandon hope. Seeing the baby knocks some sense back into Aang; he sees that life continues. He tells the parents that the experience has given him hope again, prompting the name of the baby.

I’m not saying that The Serpent’s Pass is a bad episode, just not one of the best. There are funny moments; Sokka offering Momo as a sacrifice, Toph thinking Sokka saved her when it was Suki. And I am not opposed to the idea of hope or naming a child such (see my submission to the Tolkien Symposium); I just think that this episode was heavy-handed in the telling. What I love about the show is how is subtly passes information on to the audience. Looking to my favorite character as an example: Zuko is originally supposed to be the obvious villain, Katara even pointing is out in the catacombs later: by chasing the Avatar. But the show has done a marvelous job of showing hidden sides. Aang has an angry side we’re seeing; attacking the Sand People for kidnapping Appa; he’s not just a joking child.  And hope is shown throughout the series in more subtle ways. Every time Aang’s in a different village, helping out, he is hope that the war will end, that the Fire Nation won’t win. So it wasn’t necessary to beat the audience over the head with “don’t abandon hope.”

The heroes come across a stumbling block on their way into the city; a Fire Nation drill is almost upon the outer wall. And who else would be behind it but Azula. Sokka’s idea of hitting the pressure points and teamwork brings down the drill. We see the combination of bending coming into play, Earth, Water, and Air. I am impressed by the bending battles throughout the series. These teens are masters of their crafts and bending brings a whole new element (ah, I see what I did there) to battles. Air can destroy Earth. Fire and Water can take on each other, and they can all work together.

Inside the city, we discover a new culture. The sections (read classes) are separated by walls, the city is run on strict rules. The common person does not know about the war (consider that a remarkable feat since it’s been going on for a hundred years). The Dai Li, cultural ministers, run the city; the king is merely a figurehead. Long Feng is unnerving and brainwashes anyone who doesn’t stay in line (this is what happens to Jet).

Tales of Ba Sing Se and Appa’s Lost Days are a slight departure from the typical storytelling. Tales of Ba Sing Se is a collection of short clips of each character in the city; they experience life as a normal person might, without the pressure of the world at war weighing on them. Toph and Katara go to a spa for a girls’ day and Katara stands up for Toph, telling her she is beautiful, even if she can’t see it and she admires the younger girl for her strength (an excellent message for young girls, or any woman; you don’t need someone else’s approval). Sokka joins in a poetry session, once again showing he is not a simple dunderhead, though he’s more creative than his competitor (he loses on a technicality). Aang creates an open air zoo; Zuko goes on an awkward date; Iroh helps a variety of people while he remembers his son’s birthday (tearjerker at the end with “In Honor of Mako,” the original voice actor for Iroh, who passed away before the season was finished). Momo even gets some action and finds Appa’s paw print, proving that the sky bison was in the city.

 

In_Honor_of_Mako

Appa’s Lost Days fills the audience in on what’s happened to Appa, flashing back to four weeks previous with his capture. He was traded once, then sold to a circus run by a cruel firebender giving Appa a fear of fire. He escapes and crosses paths with other characters (Iroh sees him on the ferry and Hakoda sees him from his ship as well). Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors discover him in the woods, wounded and scared, and heal him. Azula attacks and Suki forces Appa to fly away. He finds the Eastern Air Temple where a man is waiting. The man is Guru Patik and he is waiting to help the Avatar. He sends a message with Appa and guides the two back to each other. Except Long Feng is waiting and captures Appa first. He’s discovered and ultimately freed by Zuko from beneath Lake Laogai.

That act brings about a change in our antagonist. Iroh advises Zuko that it is time for him to think about what he wants in life, and why; his destiny is up to him. Iroh even follows Zuko, disguised as the Blue Spirit, to Lake Laogai and begs him to think his plans through. This is the most worked up we’ve seen Iroh, usually calm and placid. He doesn’t want to lose Zuko like he lost Lu Ten. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty for not protecting Zuko better from the war meeting and subsequent Agni Kai. It is painfully clear that Iroh loves his nephew. Iroh has demonstrated throughout the two seasons that he is not traditional Fire Nation; he follows other nations’ teachings and is knowledgeable about the Spirit Realm.

This change in character brings about a fever. Iroh explains that his soul is warring between itself, personified in Zuko’s dreams as a red dragon (Iroh) and a blue dragon (Azula). The blue dragon silkily counsels that Zuko, an unscarred Fire Lord, give in, go to sleep. The red dragon urges Zuko to flee. His dream melts, but he’s haunted by his mother pleading for help. He has a vision of himself as the Avatar, complete with Airbending tattoos, echoing some connections we’ve seen between the two and foreshadowing others.

In a plan that seems logical to teenagers, but one that only they could pull off, Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph fight through ranks of guards to finally talk to the Earth King. Proving that he has a mind of his own, the Earth King listens and observes the teens’ evidence. He dismisses Long Feng and uncovers messages for all of the kids. The Guru’s note leads Appa and Aang back to the Eastern Air Temple for further Avatar training. Toph’s mother has apparently written and wishes to see her daughter and the Earth Kingdom Army has intelligence on Katara and Sokka’s father’s whereabouts. So they all split up, Katara letting Sokka see Hakoda while she stays to finalize plans.

And just when things look like they’ll work out for the heroes…the letter to Toph was a trap, yet she manages to develop metal-bending and escapes (which is just badass; a little blind girl is the greatest Earthbender in the world). The Kyoshi Warriors that Sokka thought would be Suki and her girls are actually Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee in disguise. When Katara runs to the Earth King to inform him of seeing Iroh and Zuko at a tea shop, she actually tells Azula and is captured. This image makes its way to Aang during his training and he leaves before he has completed his training.

[A brief side note: one could do an entire analysis on the training that Aang went through and the chakras and what they mean…that person is not me. Was it interesting? Yes. Am I now thinking of how it pertain to the mindset of the Jedi? Yes. Am I going to carry on with the pervious train of thought? Yes. So, onward and upward!]

I loved the moments Sokka had with his father. He’s not a bender, he can’t always keep up with the other teens, but he’s trying to grow as a warrior and be the leader since he’s the oldest. And for a brief time, he’s with his Tribesmen, men who are like him; he’s with his father, who has the same sense of humor and who is proud of him. Hakoda tells his son that he always knew that Sokka was a great warrior, that’s why he left him in charge of the South Pole. And he’s going to join their battle…and Appa and Aang land. Sokka leaves with them and watches his father sail away, again.

catacombs

“For so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face.”
“I used to think that this scar marked me; the mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, I’ve realized that I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.”

Of course, Zuko’s identity crisis is not finished yet. Just when he’s become happy, Azula has to attack and twist his mind. On the one hand, Iroh is telling him that he is “stronger, wiser, and freer” than he’s ever been. And on the other hand, Azula dangles redemption, honor, their father’s love in front of Zuko. She tells him he’s free to choose. And that choice is made clear when he joins in her attack against Aang and Katara. (And more awesome bending!) Upon reflection, Zuko’s choice can be understood; his metamorphosis so recent, it hasn’t had enough time to stick.  He doesn’t know if he can trust the Avatar and his group; they’ve been on opposite sides for so long.  Thus, he goes back to what he knows.
Zuko's_choice

The season ends with Azula shooting lightning at Aang’s unprotected back. Iroh jumps in to cover their retreat and lets himself be captured. While it’s never specifically stated, it is heavily insinuated that Aang died. But the water from the Spirit Oasis of the North Pole that Katara has been carrying is able to magnify her healing abilities (she had offered to attempt to heal Zuko’s scar while they were getting along) and bring him back.

We pick right back up with the themes of family and honor. Zuko’s family is far more complicated and he’s still struggling to understand his honor. His own father wanted him dead years before his banishment, seeing him as a minor inconvenience in his blind ambition for the throne. Ozai pushed Iroh aside and willingly let Ursa go (there are strong hints that Ursa had a hand in the death of Azulon). With no counterbalance, all those two children got were their father’s example. Azula was the firebending prodigy her father craved. In return she was taught to be cunning; she stages a coup right under the Fire King’s nose and takes control of the Dai Li from Lang Fe. She is ruthless and relentless, pursuing the Avatar and his companions throughout the night and does not hesitate to attack her brother and uncle. She demands perfection from herself and from her friends; not a hair out of place, no sign of disloyalty. Ty Lee was scared into accepting her offer. Mai is fully aware of the consequences she may face for not following Katara into the slurry, yet still refuses.

Final takeaway: The stakes are raised and no one’s destiny is certain.

 

Comments?  Questions?  Let me know

 

Next Time: Book Three: Fire

A Little Bit of Nostalgia

First up: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.

Opening_Avatar_logo
Title Card for the show

I’ll specify, the Nick cartoon, not the movie (I was severely disappointed in the movie). This is first essentially because it is what I was interested in watching at the time and I couldn’t decide on another path (so many categories!)
The show ran from 2005 to 2008; I was in high school and I managed to stumble onto it midway through season one flipping through channels. The story was what got me hooked, and the animation was good.

I reiterate the Standard Disclaimer: Here, there be spoilers!

Book One: Water

For me, as someone who did not watch anime, it was intriguing to watch a show not based in America or Europe. My background being in British mythology, I am not as familiar with the Eastern spirits, but what I can grab a hold of is the rest of the fantasy setting. Avatar inhabits its own world with a major factor being the bending of elements. Sokka grouses about his getting soaked whenever Katara plays with “magic water.” It’s a whole cast of believable, human characters. Pre-teens and teens for the most part. And it’s written as an ensemble; while the show is titled Avatar and is sometimes referred to as the Legend of Aang, the others are not merely supporting characters. The main antagonist, Zuko has a complicated and developed backstory.

The plotline, in a sentence, is Aang, the Avatar, must master the other three elements in order to stop the Fire Nation by the end of the following summer. He’s accidentally discovered by two Southern Water Tribe teenagers, brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. “Accidentally” in that, he was frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years (after he ran away from the early pressures of becoming the Avatar, at twelve). Aang forms an early bond with Katara and since she is the last waterbender of the South Pole and has had no official training, the trio must venture to the North Pole. Giving chase to them is Zuko, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, who was banished by his father and given the seemingly impossible task of finding the Avatar and “reclaiming his honor.”

The deadline is due to a powerful comet reappearing at the end of the following summer; given the chance, the Fire Nation will use the comet to bring a devastating end to the war. The overall arc of the story has this one goal, but breaks it up with episodic adventures (sort of like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the movie moreso than the book. Lord of the Rings does this a little as well; “here’s what happened on the way to Mordor, or the North Pole, or the Fire Nation”). And the show is an excellent mix of humor and drama and does not simplify topics for kids. Kids, teenagers, and adults can all relate to the show.

trio season 1
The main trio of heroes (and Appa and Momo)

Sokka, while hilarious a good portion of the time, is also a young man who has had the fate of his village put on his shoulders at a young age; his father and the rest of the men of the tribe had left two years prior to aid the Earth Kingdom. When we see the South Pole, it is one tiny village comprised of a few huts and igloos and a lonely watchtower, inhabited by a few women and a gaggle of small children. Sokka and his sister Katara are the eldest.

Looking back, after watching the rest of the series, I wonder at the intelligence of that decision. Why would you leave two teens in charge? What would happen if they got attacked? There were decades of raids prior to Hakoda’s (Katara and Sokka’s father and chief of the Tribe) departure; did he think the last one which killed his wife had ended the Fire Nation’s interest? Were they hoping that the South Pole was remote enough and unimportant? Or did they have a plan to stop anything from going too South? I would not say that this is a deterrent from the show, just a question my mind came up with after several viewings.

Sokka can also be a typical guy. He believes, until Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors teaches him differently, that men are superior warriors. Really, the whole show does a great job of showcasing strong female warriors alongside men. But periodically he gets to showcase his training. He was right to not trust Jet and it was his kindness to the old man that evacuated the village in time. In Bato of the Water Tribe, he can read a battlefield. His off-kilter ingenuity is sparked in The Northern Air Temple. In Siege of the North, he has the most current information about the Fire Nation. The chief chooses Sokka to protect his daughter.

I have mixed feelings about Aang. Whenever I get frustrated with him, I have to remind myself that he’s twelve. Twelve-year-olds are more concerned with having fun, something Gyatso championed. And as the Avatar, the fate of the world rests on him, overwhelming for anyone. It was cruel of the other Airbending children to shun him from playing (it’s like Rudolph). And he tried to protect his friends; in Winter Solstice Part Two: Avatar Roku, he tried to leave them behind so he can’t get hurt. And he feels guilty for leaving the world to war for a hundred years. He even shows mercy and kindness to known enemies. Twice, he won’t leave Zuko behind when he’s injured (Blue Spirit and Siege of the North Part Two). Overall, a fun character and he certainly develops as the show progresses, but I can sympathize with adults when they roll their eyes at his antics.

The show does a good job of showing multiple sides of Katara. Yes, she can be girly; obsessed over finding out who is her true love, crushing on Jet (typical bad boy who’s cool cause he lives on his own). Yes, she can be petty, stealing the waterbending scroll (again, she’s fourteen; this all made more sense when I was closer to their age): “What did you learn?” “Stealing is wrong; unless it’s from pirates”. But she’s also the one to keep the group in line. It’s awesome to watch her take on Master Pakku at the end of Book One; she holds out well against an experienced Master, and in the next episode, she’s shown to have quickly become his best pupil. She essentially learned waterbending on her own, through trial and error.
zuko season 1

Zuko is my favorite character, though during the first viewing, the fondness didn’t show up until season three. Re-watching the series has pointed out several early sympathetic moments: during The Southern Air Temple, we are introduced to Zhao (an excellent villain because I hate him, he’s a bully), a commander in the Fire Nation Navy who despises young Zuko, baiting him and telling the banished prince he has “no home. No allies. Your own father doesn’t want you…in his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation…you have the scar to prove it.” We get the full backstory in The Storm; Ozai is a cruel man, challenging his own thirteen-year-old son to a fire duel and purposefully burning his face. Telling his own son that his sister was born lucky while he was lucky to be born. Not winning any father-of-the-year awards.

[As many other fans will point out: Oh the irony! For those of you not in the know, Ozai is voiced by Mark Hamill, most famously Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He has also lent his voice to the Joker from several Batman cartoons]

Iroh has always been a supporter of his nephew. After the loss of his own son, he has viewed Zuko as his own. He’s aware of Zuko’s faults, but he chooses to love and support and teach him. (And teenagers never make it easy). The Winter Solstice Part One: The Spirit World illustrates that it is reciprocated; Zuko begins the episode annoyed with his uncle, but when it becomes clear that he has been captured by Earthbenders, he hunts them down, even passing on chasing the Avatar. He arrives just in time to prevent the Earthbenders from crushing Iroh’s hands. Iroh compliments the prince on his excellent form and Zuko acknowledges “you taught me well,” and Iroh tells the Earthbenders that though the pair is outnumbered, it is the Earthbenders who are outmatched. Of course, Zuko points out at the end that Iroh really needs to put some clothes back on.

Devastation was clear on Iroh’s face when their ship exploded, with Zuko still on it. He tells a bruised Zuko “no nephew of mine is going to stow away on a ship without back-up,” and gives Zuko last minute advice before the young man hunts for the Avatar in the tundra. Iroh knows what his brother, Ozai is like; he tries to protect Zuko as best he can. And he understands the balance of the world; cautioning Zhao not to kill the Moon Spirit. The idiot is drunk on delusions of power and doesn’t listen and Iroh takes out the squad with little difficulty.

Avatar is a coming of age story, for all of the primary characters. Even the animation reflects it, showing them all a little more round-faced, voices pitched a little higher at the start of the season compared to the end. We witness children, and teenagers take on adult problems.
As a family show, it’s also about family; family that one is born with and how supportive, or not they are, and more importantly, the family that is chosen. When Katara, Sokka, and Aang visit the Southern Air Temple, where Aang grew up, they find evidence of the Fire Nation attack. Gyatso, Aang’s mentor and guardian, was surrounded by the remnants of a host of soldiers. Aang is grief stricken and furious and a mess of other emotions and enters the Avatar State, putting Sokka and Katara in danger. But Katara gets close enough to talk him down, saying that she and Sokka are Aang’s new family. It’s revealed in The Storm that Aang ran away because the council wanted to take away everything he knew and everyone he loved.

In Bato of the Water Tribe, we glimpse Sokka and Katara’s family. Seeing Bato is a reunion and a small piece of their father. Aang almost costs them their chance to be reunited, but they’ve grown as young people and know their place is with Aang; they’re extended family. As Hakoda told Sokka, “being a man is knowing where you’re needed most.”

Another clear theme is honor. From my albeit limited knowledge of Eastern culture, honor is highly valued. During the Agni Kai between Zhao and Zuko in The Southern Air Temple, Iroh blocks Zhao’s disgraceful attack after his defeat, asserting that “even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” Even more poignant, considering Zuko is attempting to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar. In The Blue Spirit, when Zuko believes that Zhao will succeed in capturing the Avatar first, he despairs “My honor. My throne. My country. I’m about to lose them all.”

Hope and destiny are brought up through the series as well. It is Aang’s destiny to be the Avatar and to master all four elements. And it appears to be destiny as well that he returns when he has, before the comet. He gives people hope, even Zuko, for it is with the Avatar that Zuko aspires to return home and please his father. Zuko still feels that it is his destiny to rule the Fire Nation, he still views himself as the rightful heir to the throne and next in line.

The season ends on a mixed note; enemies were defeated, but friends were lost. Aang saved Zuko and Zuko tried to save Zhao. Iroh helped Katara and Yue. Alliances were getting muddled. Iroh and Zuko manage to escape and Katara, Sokka, and Aang now must travel back to the Earth Kingdom so Aang can master the next element. The Avatar has entered the war and change is coming.

What are your thoughts, feelings, favorite episode? Who are your favorite characters?

Next Time: Book Two: Earth