For Avatar fans in Fresno and all over the world the wait is finally over. Last year, the first season of The Legend of Korra, the hotly anticipated sequel to the acclaimed Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, premiered to excellent ratings and rave reviews. The first season, titled Book One: Air, was smartly written, gorgeously animated, and was easily the best quality kids show on the air during its run. As the season progressed passed its premiere two episodes, it revealed an intricate story that featured a tough and dynamic female protagonist and her band of allies as they faced a revolution against the bending regime of Republic City, led by the mysterious masked leader Amon. The season dealt with such themes as growing up, good vs. evil, spiritual enlightenment, oppression, terrorism, political corruption, and legacy. The two part season finale, the episodes titles "Skeletons in the Closet" and "Endgame," were likewise praised by fans and critics.
However, The Legend of Korra has also seen its share of criticism despite its success. Even as a fan of the show, this examiner does have to admit that the common complaint about the uneven pacing for what was originally envisioned only as a twelve-episode miniseries was at times unbalanced. Because there were eight less episodes than a season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the characterization was effective, but not necessarily up to Avatar levels, since the lack of time meant there was virtually no time for any filler material. There was also a lot of complaining about eh lack of effective development of the show primary romantic pairing, main protagonist Korra and firebending boy Mako. This was also in large part due to the creators dragging out a typical love triangle story arc across the entire season that not every fan appreciated. Lastly, the ending scene of the final episode was accused by many to be a blatant deus ex machina, despite some heavy implications within it, although the final fate of the season's two main antagonists was praised for its maturity, emotional core, and its sheer boldness for a Nickelodeon show.
For this record, this examiner fully acknowledges all of these complaints, but as one might guess from the glowing praise he has given the show and the various comic book tie ins to it, he is not terribly offended by them and has seen far, far worse examples of all of these same problems in other films and series.
But with the ending of the first season so apparently final, both with the fate of the villain and with the main character, Korra, seemingly reaching the end of her journey to becoming a fully-realized Avatar, that left numerous unanswered questions about what the creators were going to do after they received the green light for three more seasons. Well, this evening, we finally received our answer as the first two episode of Book Two: Spirits, premiered on Nickelodeon to what will undoubtedly be high viewership and plenty of discussion.
Book Two: Spirits, Chapter One: Rebel Spirit
Book Two picks up six months after the end of Book One. Republic City's Council has been disbanded and the United Republic have elected their first president. Tenzin's brother, Bumi, has retired from his duties in the United Forces and is living on Air Temple Island, much to Tenzin's chagrin. Bolin has organized a new team to compete in Pro Bending, but they are performing terribly. Mako, is addition to dating Korra, has now gotten a job as a Republic City police officer. Asami is looking to repair Future Industries' reputation and business revenues in the wake of her father's action last season. As for Korra herself, she has mastered her airbending training (at least from her point-of-view), but is still showing her usual recklessness in her appreciation for the Avatar State. To help her get the further training he feels she needs, Tenzin in planning to take Korra along with his family on a vacation to visit the four air temples, which Korra is not looking forward to. But before all of that, the group makes a journey back to Korra's home in the Southern Water Tribe in time for the Glacial Spirits Festival, where they meet a few old and new faces.
Along with Korra's parents, Tonraq and Senna, they also meet Korra's uncle, Unalaq, Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, and his twin children, Desna and Eska. Unalaq is hoping to take Korra under his own tutelage to help her connect with the Spirit World and, in so doing, to calm the increasingly angry attacks that the spirits have been making against sailors. Both Tonraq and Unalaq are clearly at odds with one another, but all of that has to be put aside as a dark spirit suddenly attacks the South pole, and it seems that only Unalaq has knowledge of the techniques needs to stop it. Perhaps it is time for Korra to take her training into her own hands and choose her master for herself?
This is solid way to kick off the season. It is great to see all of the characters again and see the sometimes surprising directons they have taken. Korra, Bolin and Asami's new arch make perfect sence to me, but Mako becoming a policeman seemed a bit out of left field; yes, the first season showed how special the kid really was, but he had never expressed any interest in that kind of career before...I guess playing the hero last season had a bigger impact on him than we thought. In speaking of the police, it was a shame not to see Lin Beifong return, or General Iroh II for that matter, but after all this is only the first two episodes of the season, so who knows what else will happen down the line.
The animation here is clearly a step up from the previous season, which is already saying a lot. The action sequences we see against the spirits here are clean, crisp, and extremely fluid. The color palette this season also looked noticeably brighter than last season. I'm not sure what these creators did in development for this season, but I was very impressed! Perhaps IGN was right and this was the reason why it took so long for new episodes to air?
The imagery of the Glacial Spirits Festival, basically a county fair at the South Pole, is another example of how perplexingly different the world of Korra really is from the world of Avatar. The inclusion of the Future Industries bi-planes form last season and other technological advancements is such a contrast to the era of the original cast. Still, it is much more welcoming now than it seemed when I reviewed the series premiere. This examiner also noticed some cute references to the original series character (in chibi form) thrown into the festival sequence...all I can say is that it was weird, but cute.
The new dynamics are an interesting change of pace; this examiner especially enjoyed the scenes with Tenzin and his siblings. The tension between Tonraq and Unalaq was rather tense and it only grows worse in the second episode. The sudden resentment Korra is showing towards her father seems a bit out-of-nowhere, but then again this version of Tonraq is more fleshed out that the one we barely saw in the first season; at least with Tenzin, that frustration has been established beforehand. Asami and Bolin have an exchange with this eccentric businessman named Varrick, who despite some rather peculiar personality quirks, has his eye on some pretty sophisticated technological advancements, including early "movers" (the name he is giving to early movies). Bolin is brought in to be Asami's assistant, yet despite an awkward first meeting, Varrick takes a quick liking to him and he helps Asami seal the deal. But on that not, Bolin himself is still very much the same character he was in the first season, there pretty much solely for comic relief and to be the teams de facto earthbender, lacking the other qualities that made Sokka from Avatar such a well-rounded character. On the plus side, he does wind up in a relationship with Unalaq's daughter this season and...well, I'll just say that its hilarious.
The most criticized aspect of the first season, besides the rushed pacing, was the development of the romance between Korra and Mako. Now that the love triangle between them and Asami is over with, their relationship is shown to be committed, but nevertheless on an awkward ground as Mako is struggling to deal with the hurdles that come with dating the Avatar, a person who on a regular basis has to deal with larger-than-life issues that he can barely understand. There is a clear attempt to inject more humor into their relationship this time, like seeing Mako trying out a list of corny catchphrases he wants to use while on the job; this was a nice touch, but it still needs some work. Fortunately we still have another twelve episodes to look forward to this season.
Book Two: Spirits, Chapter Two: The Southern Lights
Having made up her mind to train with Unalaq, who tells her that her training will entail more than just learning how to fight off spirits. He says that he will be taking her to the South Pole to close a portal that has opened between the human world and the spirit world, which he says must be done before the solstice that is arriving in a few days. He cautions her that it will be dangerous, though this does not hinder her excitement about the trip. Mako, Bolin, and Desna and Eska are coming too, as well as Tonraq, much to both Unalaq's and Korra's chagrin. Meanwhile, Tenzin is taking his family, including his siblings Kya and Bumi, on their vacation to the air temples without Korra. Their first stop is the Southern Air Temple, where Aang was raised, and it is here that Tenzin's daughter, Jinora, seems to be making a special connection.
Korra's party is attacked by various dark spirits along their journey, and as the group makes camp, Unalaq reveals that he suspects that they are angry with Tonraq, forcing Korra's father to reveal that he was once a general from the Norther Water Tribe and first in line to be chief before he was banished for leading an attack on enemy barbarians that resulted in the destruction of a spiritual forest. Korra is upset that her father had kept this from her her whole life, telling her father to leave. The group arrives at an anomaly called the Everstorm, within which is the portal to the spirit world that she must close. Can Korra do so before it is too late?
This episode is a good continuation. The tension introduced between Korra and her father comes to a head, and convincingly so. Here she is learning this huge, dark secret about him that he had kept from her all this time. Coupling that with her constantly feeling under her dad and Tenzin's thumb, and, frankly, her just being a teenager, its no wonder she reacted the way she did. One could even interpret Tonraq's actions against the spirit world as an indirect stain on the Avatar's name that both Korra and Unalaq feel the need to repair, but that is interpretive.
The humor continues is this episode with more typical Bolin jokes and with Tenzin and his family. The scene where they arrive at the Southern Air Temple is very funny, especially the way the Air Acolytes choose the treat Kya and Bumi when they learn they are not airbenders. Tenzin's kids, always a great source of comedy in the first season, continue to work great here (and no, Meelo doesn't resort to any more fartbending jokes...yet). It was interesting to see that Jinora, who struck me as the least humorous and most mature of the airbender kids, is getting development this season; this examiner does recall seeing a clip from the Book Two trailer showing her and Korra going into the Spirit World together (supposedly), so I am curious to see where that goes.
The action sequences and animation continue to hold up, especially in the scene in the portal. There isn't a whole lot else I can say, except that this show looks incredible!
To be honest, this examiner does not have a whole lot more the say about this episode; it's not bad in the slightest, its just that their isn't a whole lot more to add from the last episode. However, I should bring up that within the first two episodes of this fourteen episode season, I am not clear whether they have established the series new villain. Throughout this two-part I found myself thinking that Unalaq will be the villain, and he still may be, but given the talent of these writers and how all of us assumed Tarlock was secretly Amon last season, who knows what the creators have in mind. The ending, however, does not paint Unalaq is a sympathetic light and casts a very dark shadow over the future of Korra's home this season.
One major strength of this season, as with any animated project, is the quality for the voice cast. All of the returning voice actors continue to provide great work, including Janet Varney as Korra, David Faustino as Mako, P. J. Byrne as Bolin, Seychelle Gabriel as Asami, J. K. Simmons as Tenzin, and the incredible Dee Bradley Baker as Naga and numerous other voices. New voice actors this season include Lisa Edelstein as Kya, Richard Riehe as Bumi, James Remar as Tonraq, Adrian LaTourelle as Uralaq, Aaron Himelstein as Desna, Aubrey Plaza as Eska, and John Michael Higgins as Varrick. All of these portrayals are terrific, with Remar providing stern resolve, LaTourelle providing a presumed duplicity, Edelstein and Riehe providing lighthearted comedic relief, Himelstein and Plaza providing emo-based comedic relief, and Higgins being just totally wacky.
Overall, The Legend of Korra--Book Two: Spirits is already shaping up to be an exciting continuation of this terrific sequel to one of the greatest animated series of our time, and perhaps all time. It is not flawless, and there are certainly a lot of questions left to be answered, but much like with Book One, there is only so much you can judge from only the first two episodes. I enjoy everything about this franchise, no matter what minor hiccups may of may not appear, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of this season, and the other season after it, play out.