(originally published May, 2012)

Image property of Nickelodeon, Inc.

Image property of Nickelodeon, Inc.

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor – Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Legend of Korra, despite its billing as a kids’ show, is one of the most intelligent, pertinent, and beautiful things on television. And if you are in any way a fan of quality animation or unique stories, it’s one you should be watching. What follows is essentially a love letter to the new series and the old, because you can’t have a future without a past.

For those new to the work of creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino: the world of Avatar/Korra is divided into four nations in which a segment of the population is born with the ability to “bend” – physically manipulate through force of will – one of four specific elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Beyond being awesome to see and imagine, this ability gives trained benders incredible power to shape the physical world around them, but only with intense martial arts focus are they able to master the element and themselves.

There is a deep spiritual side to bending, which is epitomized by the existence of one lone, reincarnated bender, “the Avatar.” The Avatar is born with the ability to master all four elements and bring balance to the varied peoples as a paragon of elemental harmony.

Avatar: The Last Airbender focuses on Avatar Aang, the last surviving member of the air nomad nation, as he travels across the world, gathering friends and allies, and mastering the elements in order to defeat the war-mongering tyrant leader of the fire nation. It sounds simple, but the story of Aang’s journey is told with such genuine emotion, insight, humor, fun, and more – not to mention the animation is incredibly entertaining and exciting – that to me (and many others), it truly transcends the “Saturday Morning Cartoon” and becomes something meaningful, artistic, and inspiring.

Some of the heart-wrenching situations and very adult questions that arise in the series’ last season (for example: Can one truly forsake attachment to the physical world in service of the spiritual? Is it morally correct to kill in order to stop even the most ruthless killer? How far should one go to adhere to his or her’s culture’s legacy?) are complex and relevant to even the most skeptical adult viewer. There is so much to learn and enjoy that it’s the kind of series I intend to make a required viewing experience for my (or anyone else I know’s) children one day.

After the bittersweet conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans (myself included) were clamoring for more. Luckily, the creators obliged with The Legend of Korra, a new story which picks up 70 years after the ending of Avatar. This story focuses on the trials and tribulations of the new Avatar reincarnated after the death of Aang: Korra.

Korra is a strong young woman who, despite having already mastered earth, fire, and water, struggles with air bending and the responsibilities placed on her as a result of her weighty mantle. Korra’s personality and desire to live her own life are often at odds with the expectations of the greater world, elucidating a thematic conflict that makes her appealing and identifiable as a character.

Korra embodies an impressive creative feat: she is a multi-faceted, genuine, fascinating character that has a lot to learn, but appeals and inspires as a heroine regardless of the viewer’s gender or background. Korra – skilled, but not invincible – stands her own ground as Korra, and it is this self-possessed quality that is just great to watch week after week, even in her moments of fear and doubt. I have a feeling she will quickly become a standout idol among young girls and boys alike.

With The Legend of Korra, the series creators have lessened the stakes in some respects (the world is no longer at war and most of the action is localized to a single location, Republic City), but raised them sky-high in others. Family and history have always played a large part in the Avatar universe, but in the wake of Aang’s world-changing stint as the Avatar, Korra is confronted with overwhelming doubts about her ability to live up to the legacy of Avatars past. Although Aang often struggled with this same issue, Korra’s very relevance to the world is thrown into question as a result of the advent of new technologies, social realities, and worst of all: an anti-bender movement aimed at eliminating the powerful bender "race" using terrorism to inspire fear.

The ability to bend is inherited, not cultivated, and this conflict raises a number of intriguing questions regarding many issues, but one in particular is front and center: the nature of power, from where power is derived, and who has the right to wield it.

When Korra is confronted by the leader of the anti-bender movement (establishing the major struggle of the series), and her mask of confidence is cracked, it becomes clear just how much she has to learn. The complexity of this situation leaves our protagonist in a bind; all actions seem to betray someone or something, and watching her fight to rise above these obstacles will no doubt become the reward of the series.

What makes The Legend of Korra excellent is the confidence of its story-telling and refinement of its production. This journey is going places and saying things and it’s looking incredible while doing it.

Whereas the previous series largely felt like it existed on its own terms, the story of The Legend of Korra can easily be read as allegory, interacting with and addressing many of the most contentious and difficult issues facing the real world today. The conundrum of generational responsibility – how does a new generation move the world forward when its previous caretakers have passed on? – resonates given recent social and cultural movements here in the U.S. (Occupy Wall Street, gay rights, income inequality, etc.) and abroad (Middle Eastern revolutions, terrorism, human rights violations, etc.). The tumultuous world of The Legend of Korra smartly reflects our own and seems aimed at the politically- and culturally-aware adults in its audience. If this weren’t on Nickelodeon, I wouldn’t consider it to be a children’s show, its scope is that large.

This isn’t all to say that there’s nothing but brooding political grand-standing. No! Quite the opposite, in fact.

The truly impressive accomplishment of this series and the one before, and what makes them both so endearing, is that they deal with all of these ideas and issues while still being SO MUCH FUN. The art, animation, music, and voice acting teams on Korra have outdone themselves, delivering a unique, charming, beautiful, and complete world and even more amazing characters. There is just so much conviction put into even the most straightforward fight scene that every frame of this series is a joy. The creative teams, much like the pro-bending Fire Ferrets, “leave it all in the arena,” and it shows.

In case you couldn’t tell, I simply cannot recommend The Legend of Korra (and its predecessor) enough. If you have a chance to, please check them out. This is exactly the kind of entertainment we, as a culture, should reward and encourage: creative journeys that you come away from more enlightened, with plenty to think about and celebrate.