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Students say they connect with “Avatar” through heartwarming messages and life lessons

Graphic of Aang, Katara, Toph and Zuko bending their elements and Sokka with a sword and Appa in the back with elemental design as the background.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender," an American animated television series created in 2005, recently had a comeback after it was added to Netflix on May 15. The series became one of the service's most-watched shows, according to the site's top 10 list. BYU-Hawaii student fans of the show shared how the animated series carries universal themes and a great sense of adventure, years after its premiere.

Why is it so popular?

Angela Fantone, an alumna from the Philippines who majored in English, shared the show is popular because it transports people into a whole other world.

According to IMDB, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" occurs in a fictional world of four nations based around the elements of water, earth, fire and air, with inspiration from various cultures in Asia. The inhabitants of the fictional world, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, can "bend" or manipulate the elements around them. Only the Avatar, a young boy with arrow-shaped tattoos named Aang, can bend all four, in a quest to bring balance to the world. 

Fantone said she watched bits of the show when she was younger but never finished it. However, revisiting and finishing it as an adult made her realize even though it transports the audience into a whole other world, it speaks to values necessary in real life.

"The show is a culmination of what I want to do as a writer. I want to create a world for my audience and teach them valuable lessons. I want fictional events to coincide with real events, so people realize fiction and real-life aren't always that different. One just has spirits and dragons and magic in it, while the other doesn't," Fantone said. 

Echoing Fantone, Thomas Johnson, a senior from Laie majoring in communications, said, even though "Avatar" is a cartoon that aired on Nickelodeon, it also has an appeal to an older audience because of its heartwarming messages. Along with great messages, he added how each character in the show delivers those messages in a way that is relatable.

"I enjoyed 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' as a child because of its action and comedy. However, I grew to appreciate it when I was older because of its deeper messages of equality and love. I definitely want my kids to watch it in the future."

Ganzorig Solibat, a freshman from Mongolia, majoring in business management, said he believes "Avatar" is still famous after 15 years because of its good moral lessons and excellent production values.

"The show is very interesting, and the characters are well developed. All the events of the show are well connected to each other and make people excited for the next one. 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' showed that everything needs balance," Solibat commented.

Alyssa Odom, a senior from Washington state majoring in piano performance, said the show is so popular because it is something that people can relate to and enjoy. Family and friend relationships within the show are easy to connect to. "I love the series because it follows an exciting storyline that progresses and also has closure at the end."

What does it teach?

Fantone said the show helped her to learn more about Asian lore. "I love 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' because it gives homage to various Asian cultures. That is not something you commonly see in mainstream media. Most books and TV shows I grew up with were based on Western folklore and literature. I became very well-versed with Western lore, so when I started watching 'Avatar,' I realized how much I was missing out because I barely knew Eastern lore and literature."

Fantone described how the show influenced her to read more material and research Asian culture and literature. "As a student of literature, I will miss out on a lot of literary treasures if I'm only familiar with what the West has to offer. It reminds me to be proud of my Asian roots."

Solibat shared he learned from "Avatar" that when the balance of something gets lost, it has negative consequences. For instance, if the world's ecological balance gets lost, every living thing will suffer and some of them may become extinct.

Fantone said the most important lesson the show taught her is good and evil exist everywhere. "It's not always easy to see who the enemy really is and never generalize a group of people for the mistakes of one or a few.

"Trust your family and friends, and get their help. The Avatar was never meant to do his duty alone. Teamwork makes the dream work," Fantone added.  

Out of all the characters in the series, Odom said her favorite was Iroh, the wise uncle of the brash Prince Zuko. "His quiet confidence and dignity show through his interactions with others, especially his nephew Zuko. He shows love and forgiveness to those around him, especially his family members.

"When placed in a position and a family where Uncle Iroh could easily have chosen power and evil, he chose to do the right thing and dedicate himself to influence others to do the right thing as well. It is super exciting that the show is on Netflix now so we can rewatch episodes whenever," Odom said.

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