Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra, a sequel series of the animated phenomenon Avatar: The Last Airbender, concluded its first season a few weeks ago and from the get go of the twelve-episode run, solidified itself as one of the best half hour shows on television.
Layered with mythology, real world issues, emotional characters and breathtaking action, Korra was an unexpectedly mature and artistic animated series — even the biggest Avatar fans were shocked by where Korra went and what it pulled off. The show found its audience, The Legend of Korra consistently delivering Saturday morning ratings on par with cable's biggest shows. So it's a no brainer that this week, Nickelodeon announced that The Legend of Korra would produce three more seasons for a total of 52 episodes. That's commitment!
Season One of The Legend of Korra may be in the past, but creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are already hard at work on "Book 2." Appearing alongside a number of the cast, DiMartino and Konietzko were on hand at San Diego Comic-Con to give rabid Korra fans an inside look at the first season and a taste of what's to come. Here's what we saw:
The panel kicked off with a live read of scenes from Book 1, led by series voice director Andrea Romano (a legendary director who also has credits in the DC Animated world). Voice acting often gets brushed off — it's not "real" performance. But the theatrical rendition of The Legend of Korra quickly dispelled the myth, as stars Janet Varney (Korra), P.J. Byrne (Bolin), David Faustino (Mako), and Seychelle Gabriel (Asami) roused the crowd with a mix of Korra's funniest and most dramatic moments. Romano directs them like a conductor, cuing the actors with scene descriptions and hand gestures. "Laugh together!" This is how animated magic is made.
Then DiMartino and Konietzko rattled off tons of Book 2 concept art and facts:
Team Avatar will travel to the Southern Water Tribe. They'll visit a festival with glowing lanterns that warm up the snowscape scenery. Beautiful.Korra will travel through a storm to find a glowing iceberg. Spirit world? The ice cave looks very reminiscent to the iceberg Aang was trapped in.We saw concept art of the Southern Air Temple. Inspired by Chinese art, it's a stone structure enhanced with yellow and orange skies, lush vegetation growing over it.Book 2 will explore the Spirit World and how the "Avatar" lineage began. Korra will travel into the spirit world and Konietzko hints that there may be episodes later in the season dedicated to exploring the bigger landscape of the Spirit World.Then we saw some new costumes. Korra will have new threads inspired by Mandarin, asymmetrical fashion. Mako and Bolin will get big, fluffy coats for the frozen tundra that maintain their color coordination (Mako loves that red scarf).Asami is now the head of her dad's Future Industries, so she's gone corporate! Luckily, she has an alternate costume, an airship look that makes her a double for Amelia Earhart.Book 2 will bump up Bumi, a fan favorite and brother of Tenzin, to a regular character. He's got a big potbelly which fits his wacky personality.His sister Kya will also be a regular player. Dubbed a hippie by "Konietzko," Kya's big into healing.Korra's expanded family will be introduced. The creators mentioned that Korra was inspired by MMA fighter Gina Carano, which explains her build. It also explains why her entire family is ripped.Book 2 called "Spirits" and takes place six months after Book 1.
The panel concluded with first look footage in the form of animatics (early animated storyboards that give you a feel of what to expect from the finished product). First up is a scene in the Pro-Bending arena (it's back!) with Bolin leading the Fire Ferrets into a match with the new team, Lion Elephants. Mako and Korra are off the team — and Bolin is getting his butt kicked playing side-by-side with the newbies.
Next, a big action scene between Mako (now a policeman for Republic City) and a pair of fleeing robbers. They try and waterbend his motorcycle off the road with a sheet of ice, but he's faster than them. He jumps the cycle into the air, spins around, firebends their truck and sends it rolling into a building. "Looks like someone had car trouble." Diss.
Then we see Korra racing Tenzin's kids on airballs around the air temple. It's neck and neck, but Korra jumps into Avatar State for the extra umph to get her across the finish line. Tenzin is not pleased. "The Avatar State is not to be used as a booster rocket!" This moment may speak to the season's larger arc, of Korra learning to master and appreciate her spiritual side.
Finally, we see Korra encounter a spiny spirit in the Southern Water Tribe. He's spiny and wicked, like one of Miyazaki's darker creations. The creature moves with lightning speed, pinning Korra to ice. She enters Avatar State to whip fire and water at the beast, but he tunnels underground and escapes. Conflict with the Spirit World is already shaping up to be the show's big conceit.
And that's it! The panel wrapped with the crowd recording cheers and laughs for the show's Pro-Bending scenes, which kept the energy high to the very end. The Korra crew is clearly dedicated to their creation, but also to their fans. A perfect panel!
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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[Photo Credit: Nickelodeon]
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When the melancholy strings of The Legend of Korra's end credit music began to play at the conclusion of the series' set of back-to-back episodes, "Welcome to Republic City" and "A Leaf in the Wind," I was left stunned, blown away by the sheer amount of drama packed into two half hours of Saturday morning cartoons. I immediately questioned my critical eye, pegging my adoration for the new show as a fanboyish relapse into the world of the show's predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Could a sequel cartoon series really be this powerful or was quintessential devotee projecting?
With last weekend's conclusion of Book One: "Air" (Airbender speak for Season One), I can look back and wake myself up. I wasn't confused at all: The Legend of Korra is really one of television's best shows.
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's Avatar mythology is akin to the Harry Potter series, beginning with Airbender, a kid-friendly hero's journey peppered with action, fleshed out characters, and a heap of emotion, and growing up with the audience into The Legend of Korra. Whereas Airbender felt like a Lord of the Rings for all ages, Korra scales down the scope, while upping the consequences, dropping us into a world seventy years in the future that's on the brink of an Industrial Revolution. Sure, there's magic and meditation and The Avatar (an reincarnated human imbued by spirits with the power to bend all four element types: water, fire, earth, and air), but the world of Korra balances it with technology, political strife, and criminal masterminding. Aang, the hero of Airbender, had a clear mission: defeat the big bad Fire Lord who was bent on controlling the world. In Korra, everything is a little bit hazier, a little more ambiguous, and a hell of a lot more terrifying. Yes, I'm talking about a Nickelodeon show.
With the release of Pixar's Brave this weekend, there's plenty of discussion on animated female characters and their portrayal in TV and movies. Certain characters may tiptoe towards true empowerment, but Korra blows them away. When we pick up with the titular hero (voiced by the lively Janet Varney), she's mastered three of the four elements and his headed to Republic City, the show's 1920s-ish, New York stand in that plays home base to the season's entire arc, to pick up one more skill: the spiritual technique of airbending. The move isn't too different from a teenager's transition to college — at the top of her game, Korra quickly realizes that being the Avatar earns her zero cred with her quiet but powerful airbending master Tenzin (portrayed with fatherly grace by the vet thespian J.K. Simmons), the police force that wishes she'd disappear, or the demanding population of Republic City that is on the brink of war. Besides having her own internal issues to deal with (Korra's a bit of a hot head — and not just when she's firebending), her status as a defender of peace puts her at the center of the city's (and the show's) main conflict.
There's a fissure forming in town, dividing the powerful bending community and the non-benders, who are too-often forced to step aside. Leading the "Equalist" movement from behind-the-scenes is Amon, a masked figure who plays puppetmaster to the non-benders, using propaganda and promises of a bending-free society to amass a militia. Korra's training is quickly interrupted by the reveal of Amon's greatest weapon: the ability to cleanse benders of their powers. In the third episode, "The Revelation," Amon strips a gangster of his firebending abilities with the touch of a finger. Korra's villain may not be murdering people in cold blood, but he might as well be — in the world of Avatar, your bending is your soul. Complicating Korra's balancing act is aggression from the other side of the struggle. Councilman Tarrlok stands alongside Tenzin in governing Republic City, but he's bent on keeping the Equalist forces squashed. He sends out task forces to arrest possible soldiers of the rebellion, attempts to blackmail Korra into aiding and eventually resorts to non-bender internment camps. These are not the sort of issues I had to deal with when I was seventeen.
What could have been political gobbledygook a la the Star Wars prequels is written by DiMartino and Konietzko with consistency, economy and truthfulness. Amon's actions are devastating — but not entirely unwarranted. That's heady material for a "kid's show," but Nickelodeon's faith the in the writing duo is clear with every episode. Anything can happen in Korra's exploration of Republic City and herself. In the fourth episode, Korra challenges Amon to a one-on-one battle to finish things once and for all. In any other show, we know the hero will walk away unscathed, if not successful. In The Legend of Korra, your wrenching gut would only be so lucky.
Korra isn't all about the dramatic shocks, delivering a wealth of comedy and excitement in its short run time (this season came in at a swift twelve episodes). New to the world of Avatar is the sport of Pro-Bending, where element manipulators of all types square off in teams for the amusement of cheering crowds. This is where Korra meets her companions: Mako (David Faustino), the brooding, firebending hero type, and Bolin (the side-splitting P.J. Byrne), his powerful earthbending brother who is never without a quip. The trio, as team Fire Ferrets, rise to the top of the Pro-Bending pack (a sport that has its own bittersweet taste — is this really how the spirits meant for people to be using their powers?) while becoming immersed in the underground workings of the Equalists, and entangling themselves romantic connections that inevitably form around hormonal teenagers. When Asami, the non-bending daughter of Republic City's most valuable innovator, becomes a financial backer for the Fire Ferrets, the core relationships get even messier. It may seem like it on the surface, but don't confuse the bunch for a young adult-lit love triangle. DiMartino and Konietzko craft a disturbingly accurate portrait of teen romance that's messy, confusing and, at times, altogether wonderful. The mushy stuff always plays as undertones — a style I wish some most live-action TV had the gravitas to pull off.
Great storytelling can only get you so far, but series directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu push the series into greatness with action filmmaking that's on par with any of this year's summer blockbusters. Mixing martial arts fights with expertly designed chase sequences and large scale battle scenes, the directing duo leave no opportunity untapped. When you have element-bending at your disposal, the possibilities are endless. Every episode features another ingenious use of adrenaline-infused animation; from police captain Lin Beifong's Spider-man-like attacks on Amon's airship fleet or an intimate battle between Korra and Amon's right-hand man, the electricity-enhanced Lieutenant, no show matches the intensity and grit of a Legend of Korra action sequence. As a cartoon junkie who grew up on X-Men, Batman, and a plethora of anime, Korra sets a new bar.
Nickelodeon does sport a handful of programs aimed directly at the young ones, but underestimating The Legend of Korra would be a mistake. The show is dense storytelling (having a foundation of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender is recommended, as events and characters are built upon in Korra), but an emotional watch, that confidently wrestles with the idea of loss, identity and responsibility. Calling The Legend of Korra a cartoon feels derogatory — the show never panders to any age group. Instead, it presents an adventure that will have a person of any age gasping, laughing and howling at the screen at its most badass of moments. Animation has the unique ability to present whatever the imagination conjures up. Even after one season, The Legend of Korra is inches away from that unreachable threshold.
Now, back to my meditation. Who knows how long it will take for Book Two to begin?
You can find Books One, Two and Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender all on Netflix Watch Instantly. The Legend of Korra is available on iTunes and Nickelodeon streaming. For more detailed recaps of the episodes, check out the Republic City Dispatch podcast.
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[Photo Credit: Nickelodeon]
The Legend of Korra: Book 1