What does an intro to a new show have to accomplish? Present the tone and theme, the backdrop, the characters, and start off the main plot. Next to that, it has to whet the viewers' appetites for more, it has to hook them to the show. Since the intro for Avatar is in truth a two-parter, we will cut the first part some slack, and then see whether it can set up these goals for the second episode.
The episode begins with a voice-over summary of the recent events, complete with some nice artwork. After this, the theme music of Avatar leads into the opening of the episode, somewhere at the south pole. The important backdrop will have to wait, as the pace is tuned down to a crawl. And it is indeed this crawling pace that allows the show to lead viewers into the story step by step.
We are introduced to two of the main characters, Katara and Sokka, out fishing. Within the first five minutes after their appearance, many things become clear without them being explained directly to the audience: Katara's waterbending, their relationship, some personal history. This process is repeated for all of the other main characters. The key here is that they are introduced in pairs: Katara and Sokka being the first, then Aang and Appa, and finally Zuko and Iroh.
It is this clever juxtaposition, and the fact that the few new characters are spread out over the first part of the episode, that enables viewers to slowly warm up to them, and their names, before having to worry about too much action or a truly deep plot.
The whole episode is lightened up with humor, and though it is evident that the show is aimed at the 6 to 11 year old demographic, the amount of jokes is not even close to excessive. Instead, it's the calm before the storm, the happy days before the heroes, along with the viewers, have to face the reality of the war as the show goes on.
Moving away from characters and story, let's focus on the gimmicks and supplemental material, that is, art, music, sounds, et al.
The art is great, with fluid motions, and great coloring. Indeed, color is something the artists constantly use very masterfully to evoke mood and to show contrast. One of the nice things is the amount of movement in the screens. Often, in cartoons, most of the screen is static, and only the currently acting part (person, event etc.) is moving. Not so in 'Avatar'. The characters, even bystanders, seem natural, and the variety and amount of facial expressions is impressive.
One thing about exaggermation (such as unnatural expressions or bodily contortions). It is present, but tasteful, only used when it adds to the effect. The amount of it is, in my sense, minimal, and, something I'm very thankful for, it is only present in comical characters. Aang and, especially, Sokka have quite a bit of exaggermation, but Katara and Zuko are almost devoid of it, something that keeps the characters' images intact.
There's not too much to be said to sound effects, except that they are nicely done and don't seem amiss.
Now, last but not least, music. Even in movies, it is the music that can make or break a mood, a scene, or the entire work. In Avatar, the music is grand. It uses a mixture of western and eastern instruments and styles. Though music plays a bigger role in the second episode, the beginning and ending theme of this episode are memorable pieces indeed.
All in all, 'The Boy in the Iceberg' does its job, and serves as the exposition chapter of the first two episodes. We get to know the characters, a bit about the world, and it ends with a perfect lead-in for the next episode to start off the action and bring the protagonists and antagonists together to start the jazz. Though this episode in itself is not enough to get you hooked to the show, and does not fully set the tone, it is enough to have future episodes lead into the action without further ado.
This review focused more on some of the general aspects of the show in its entirety, but to me, that's what a good introduction has to reveal, and in my opinion, 'The Boy in the Iceberg' pulls this off extremely well.
In the premiere episode of Avatar the Last Airbender, the opening unveils the fundamental concept of the show, a mystic land thrown into chaos by violent warfare. The Avatar, a being of tremendous power who could set things right, has vanished mysteriously.
After establishing that we are in for an epic adventure, the show begins quite modestly. Like many fantasy epics before it, we begin in a quiet, remote corner of the globe, seemingly far from the terrible struggles enveloping the land. Our Tatooine or Shire in this case is the polar reaches of the Southern Water Tribe.
The characters of Katara and Sokka are first to be introduced, and it is clear they have the contentious relationship most siblings can relate to. They are voiced by newcomers Mae Whitman and Jack DeSena. Katara is the optimistic dreamer, with "magical" powers. Sokka is the cynical realist, with a dislike for the strange and unfamiliar. It is worth noting that this version of Sokka is played as a sort of "straight man" for the rest of the cast, enduring various comic humiliations at the hands of others. This stands in stark contrast to the use of Sokka in the later episodes, where he becomes more of a happy-go-lucky jokester. The creative team has said that the strong performance given by DeSena inspired them to expand on his character.
Soon we are introduced to young Aang, left frozen for a century. A mere boy of 12, he is the youngest of the main characters, a lighthearted rascal with a pure heart. From the moment of his awakening, he seems fascinated by Katara, a running theme that continues to obsess many of Avatar's young fans. He seems an unlikely savior to the war-torn nations, and indeed denies being the Avatar initially.
The main cast is rounded out by scenes of Prince Zuko, the scarred and dishonored son of the Fire Lord, and his uncle, Iroh. Dante Basco gives a wonderful performance as the arrogant and impulsive prince, and the renowned Mako provides the voice of Uncle Iroh. They are undertaking a quest to capture the Avatar, and are the main antagonists in season one. Early on we see that uncle and nephew, like the siblings, share a fractious and complex relationship.
While Avatar shows the influence of modern Japanese animation, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko avoid the clichés that plague most efforts from across the ocean. Director Dave Filoni keeps things moving crisply, in contrast to the often drawn-out stories of japanimation.
Overall the tone of the first episode is rather comical and light. And yet by the end, we are reminded that these children live in a world of conflict, where menace lurks just over the horizon. This mixture of bright comedy, compelling adventure and intricate characterization is what draws such a diverse fan base to Avatar: The Last Airbender.