Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most universally beloved shows I can think of. Prince Zuko is the go to example for countless people when asked asked about a good redemption arc. Likewise, Animorphs has a fiercely dedicated fanbase and fans – more than just me, I mean – who are quick to explain why each of the leads is so multidimensional. So why is that? What is so special about these children’s works that they attract so much dedication amongst people far older than the target audience? Well…it’s a lot of things.
Brilliantly Written Characters
Hey, guess what – well written characters aren’t exclusive to adult fiction! Oftentimes, I actually prefer those in children’s fiction. I think it can partially be attributed to how when a work is targeted at children, authors feel less of a need for a complex plot. That gives the characters more of a chance to shine. Both ATLA and Animorphs stand as excellent examples of this.
Zuko from ATLA and Jake from Animorphs had two of the absolute best written character arcs of all time. Which is funny, seeing as they probably couldn’t be any more different. Zuko’s character arc is essentially Jake’s inverted, because ATLA is more idealistic than Animorphs ever was. But despite their differences, they’re both pillars of their respective works – Jake is the leader of the Animorpsh, and Zuko is arguably more of an emotional anchor in ATLA than even Aang.
Zuko’s story was a beautiful story of redemption, about struggling and becoming a better person that can help lead the world into a better tomorrow. He was a not so good guy when we first met him that, over the course of three seasons, grew up and proved to his former adversaries that they could trust him, which is essentially the opposite of Jake, who began with ideals. Jake started off believing in concepts like honour in war. He believed in leaving no man behind. There was a reason people trusted him to lead, and that was that he was a good guy. Yes, it was partially because he was the link in the chain, the one person every character had a preexisting relationship with before the construction site. But it was more that their preexisting relationship with him made them all aware that he was a good guy whose decisions they could believe in. Jake’s arc was one of someone with too much responsibility placed on his shoulders who started to make tougher and tougher decisions and whose team became more and more aware of how much he was faking it.
I read a post on Tumblr a while back, from a person that always has intelligent things to say about Animorphs, and it included something that really stuck with me – Jake is a good kid and brilliantly written character, but he’s not an easy person to love. I think the same applies to Zuko (from the point when we first meet him, not the flashbacks to before he was banished). They don’t have the same flaws. They’re very different people. But as much as the audience can love and appreciate both of them, they’re not easy for the people around them to deal with.
Take Mai. Mai loves Zuko, enough to stand up to Azula so he could get out of there. And he loves her back. He misses her when he leaves. He wants her to be happy. He’s delighted to see her again at the end of the finale. But he also has anger issues galore that results in him lashing out at her. He’s socially awkward and terrible at expressing affection. During the episode when they were on Ember Island, he yelled at her for exchanging like six words with some random guy. He also gets so caught up in his problems that he doesn’t spend much time considering her feelings. It’s not his fault that he has other stuff to prioritize. But it does mean that he’s not great at the whole relationship thing. Similarly, there’s Zuko’s relationship with Iroh. Iroh loves him, spent a lot of the series trying to tell him what he was doing was neither morally right nor healthy, but Zuko didn’t listen. Zuko’s arc is, in part, about overcoming these issues.
When it comes to Jake, while his friends love him and are loyal to him, they’re also deeply aware of his flaws and the way that, in order to win the war, he has to be willing to manipulate and use them. That coupled with how his method of dealing with emotion is to repress the hell out of it (in himself) or send Cassie to deal with it (in someone else) means that by the end of the series, Cassie, who spent the entire series loving him, knows she has to walk away. She has to move on, because staying with him would be self destructive. It would have probably killed any chance of them ever coming back together, whether as friends or as a romantic couple. Again, we’re talking about a similar principle as with Zuko, but inverted.
Zuko and Jake are both amazingly written characters with wonderfully complex relationships with other characters, and I think they very much benefit from the target audience of the works to which they belong. Both ATLA and Animorphs have simplistic plots. Neither character was ever involved in much romantic drama. The characters themselves were the focus, and they shone.
The first Animorphs book came out in 1996, the year before a certain boy wizard took over the world and revolutionized children’s literature. I imagine if it were coming out today, instead, there would be a lot fewer books that would probably be longer, each book being closer to one of the Chronicles or Megamorph books, rather than the main series. In a way, I think it’s pretty lucky that it came out when it did, because the format works.
Sure, Animorphs is trashy sci fi for kids that was used as a tool to sell a lot of merchandise to children. Sure, the book a month for years schedule was a way of pushing out a lot of content, regardless of quality. Sure, that’s not normally conducive to a particularly thought provoking franchise, or anything with literary merit. But fortunately, in this one circumstance, it all came together to work in the books’ favour. The brilliance of Animorphs is that the large number of instalments show off how the characters develop, how they perceive themselves, and how their friends see them over the entire length of the series. Most books in the series do the remarkable job of making the reader feel the full gamut of human emotion in about a hundred pages. Even the worst written Animorphs book, the most nonsensical or pointless one – it still has something about it that I’d consider worth reading. I think the same thing can be said about ATLA: most episodes make full use of its twenty minutes in a many other shows – of all lengths and genres – don’t, and even the weakest have value.
Adult – and young adult – fiction wanders. It’s usually longer, giving more time for asides. That’s not the case with most children’s work, especially pre-Harry Potter. There has to be a focus. They have to be tightly plotted in order to be appealing. Each twenty minute ATLA episode, each, say, 120 page Animorphs book did an excellent job of doing that. Both ATLA and Animorphs had breather “episodes” that give the audience time to recover and not descend into Darkness Induced Audience Apathy. Humour and seriousness coexist without intruding on each other. It might occasionally verge onto heavy handed, but both works generally handle it well.
When a work is targeted at an older audience, oftentimes, subtlety will fly out the window. It’s funny – subtlety isn’t really a word I’d think at first to apply to either ATLA or Animorphs. What I’ve always said about the narration of the latter is that it’s simplistic, childish, kind of repetitive, with occasional moments of utter brilliance. It doesn’t get bogged down in the same kind of flowery language present in a lot of books, nor is it the barebones, beige prose style of a lot of adult fiction. It’s just simple and blunt. Despite that, we see nuances that go well beyond what I’ve seen in many works targeted at adults. ATLA might not be quite at that level of carefully illustrated development, but it gives it a fair shot.
When I talk about a lack of subtlety in adult works, it’s not at all a question of violence. I can handle that. You’d be surprised at how horrifyingly violent Animorphs got. But other books, shows, movies, whatnot, they get needlessly graphic with their violence, to the point where it’s gratuitous rather than serving a purpose. Instead of being “gritty” through exploring people and issues, they bring in things like rape or incest or illustrating abuse in painful detail.
In ATLA, we’re explicitly told every realization Zuko has. We see him confront Ozai and call him out for being a terrible parent, we hear him talk through his issues with Azula. Even though his coming to those realizations is more subtle and far from immediate, the culmination of it is very direct. But what we don’t see is every example of Ozai’s abusiveness throughout Zuko’s childhood. Showing us that would be unnecessary, and might even distract from the point. We don’t need to see the abuse itself to see its effect.
It’s kind of similar to the episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Graysons die. We see the shadow, we see the frayed ropes, and we see Bruce’s face, but we don’t see the corpses. From what I understand, that wasn’t the original plan, but censors insisted the scene be changed to make it less graphic. And while I’m usually disappointed when creators have to change things to get past the censors, I think that when it comes to Robin’s Reckoning, it was for the best. I think it made the scene a lot more powerful.
When it comes to adult fiction, Westworld strikes me as an example of a show that does it right – at least some of the time. It’s filled with violence and abuse, but it’s not fetishized. Gruesome, horrifying things are portrayed as gruesome and horrifying. In the pilot, Dolores’s rape is off screen. It’s not the Game of Thrones style violence against women for shock value and prolonged scenes of graphic abuse. Do I think all of the violence it does have is necessary? No. But I much prefer it to the style of gratuitous sexualized abuse in other works.
Animorphs is a brutal deconstruction of countless tropes. And part of what makes it compelling is that there is very, very rarely an easy out.
Jake is the closest thing to the central main character. The first book was his. He led the team. He was essentially every other main character’s most important relationship. So you’d think he’d be the counterpart to Aang. But no, he’s Zuko’s, because as much as I do like Aang, as much as I’d defend his stance that he couldn’t kill Ozai, that was the easy way out in terms of now he ultimately had something else he could do. Zuko didn’t get the same kind of easy answers Aang did. Aang faced a lot of difficulties, but he never had to make the choice to kill Ozai. Zuko, on the other hand, was ready for that to happen. He was prepared for his father’s death, his sister’s. Was it easier for him than for Jake, because Jake’s childhood was so much happier? No doubt. Which is why the different outcomes in their respective stories worked so well.
Zuko and Jake have different relationships with their siblings. They’re both the less talented sibling at something that’s important to them, but their place in the birth order informs how that affects them. Zuko is older, with a baby sister that surpasses him. So he’s jealous about it. He’s bitter and envious and spends years trying to prove himself. Jake, on the other hand, starts off idolizing Tom, the big brother he wants to be just like. It makes so much sense, from this perspective, that by the end, Zuko has let go of his anger and is in a place where it’s possible to repair his relationship with his sister, while Jake’s family has completely fallen apart.
ATLA is a story about hope, peace, redemption, friendship. Through Zuko, we see someone misguided and confused finding his way. He stands up for himself to his father. He decides that he doesn’t like the path he’s on and changes direction. He learns to appreciate and understand Iroh’s love for him. He chooses his family. Even though doing so means he has to go against everything he’s ever known, he does it, choosing to fight with Aang against his own family. And at the end, even after that, there’s recognition of the fact that Azula may not be nice, she may not have learned the same lessons Zuko did, but she still grew up in the same abusive environment he did and deserves a chance to redeem herself. She didn’t, in the show, but she also didn’t die. Azula didn’t die. And where there’s life, there’s hope.
Animorphs is a story about the horrors of war. It’s about how utterly unfair it is – there isn’t any vengeance. Not really. The story ended with Rachel dead and Tom dead and everyone traumatized. Visser Three lived. Most of the Yeerks that enslaved innocent people weren’t punished. The people that were hurt throughout the series were largely the innocents. By the time he joined the Gaang, Zuko was prepared for the deaths of his brother and sister. He’d come to believe it was necessary because they were hurting people. That wasn’t what Jake had to face at all – he had to send his cousin to kill his brother, even though it wasn’t his brother hurting people. Tom was an innocent that Jake had spent years refusing to give up on. The story didn’t have a happy ending – it wasn’t all tragedy, but it was still a whole lot of pain.
I used to consider the ending in ATLA to be a little bit of a cop out, what with the energy bending solution coming out of nowhere, seemingly just so Aang could get out of killing Ozai without future consequences. And I still kind of do, primarily because of how influential Animorphs was to how I interpret fiction. But I also think it fits with the rest of the story.
I’m a big believer in earned endings, happy or otherwise. I would have liked more setup to the “take away his bending” outcome than we got, but I’m not actually mad about how ATLA ended. If anything, giving it the tragic ending Animorphs got would be a departure from the positive themes the show was rooted in.
ATLA and Animorphs are completely different stories. They pretty much only have two things in common: they were targeted at children, and they are fantastic. Children’s fiction often gets dismissed because of the target audience. But when handled with care by people who respect children and their intelligence, it can be excellent. Any good children’s work matures as it progresses, matures as the characters and audience alike develop, allowing people of different ages and experiences to get something different out of it. ATLA and Animorphs do just that. As such, everyone – of all ages – should watch ATLA and read Animorphs. Regardless of what specifically you get out of it, they’re both worth the time.