Part two of the series premiere redeems the first part by cramming in all the action that it was: the fight and escape sequences when Zuko captures Aang. There is a bit of exposition, but not nearly the stifling amount from the first episode. The characters get more characterization, though there is a limit to how much can be done with 23 minutes of screen time. The story is advanced, and Aang and friends are launched on their quest.
First of all, the action. This episode is the first major showcase of the magical martial-arts combat that will be a focus of the series. As such, it does not disappoint. The fights are carefully choreographed, with characters using the same moves consistently and to great effect. The moves are also very much in keeping with the characters of the protagonists. Zuko's burning rage powers his fire blasts, and Aang's breezy freedom of motion is reflected in his airbending. Katara's waterbending is still very primitive, but her use of it at a key moment shows off an important aspect of her personality: when her ice blast backfires and freezes Sokka behind her, she does not waste time trying to figure out what she did wrong: she just turns around and repeats the same action. Sensible and adaptable: that's Katara in a nutshell.
Zuko gets a little more attention paid to his character than his cardboard portrayal in "The Boy in the Iceberg", and it softens him just a little. When he supposes Aang wouldn't know about fathers, is that just a trace of sympathy in his tone? It is Iroh who gets less screen time now, though his hand-off of Aang's staff is a wonderful character moment. We get a bit more depth of character on Katara and Sokka, too, as Sokka finally gets a chance to exert his authority in banishing Aang from the tribe early in the episode. Katara is willing to leave with Aang, excited by the promise of finding waterbending instructors at the north pole, but Aang does not want to come between her and her tribe.
At the midpoint of the episode is one of the scenes that reminds me the most of Hayao Miyazaki: Gran Gran gives Katara and Sokka a sort of benediction on their quest, and explains that the Avatar is the last hope for the world. While it is more exposition, it is also reminiscent of the scene from Spirited Away where the wise woman sends Prince Ashitaka out to meet his destiny. The quest of the Avatar has officially begun.
Another good thing about the episode is the writing. The writers have a knack for making even expository dialogue not hurt, and come up with some very clever lines. Also, they show an impeccable sense of comic timing, executing sight gags and jokes at just the right moments to get a chuckle (and relieve the tension between serious moments). Sokka's boomerang and the children's interrupted cheer are two of many fine examples.
But this is not to say everything in the episode was good. I felt the pacing of the first half suffered a little; the banishment scene did provide some characterization, but it also slowed the action down a little. And there were a few more bits of silly animation, such as Aang's disembodied mouth remaining around the corner for a moment as he whispers "Sorry" at Iroh's room.
This is a solid episode, and a pretty decent one. But it is not fantastic. Avatar is a show that builds over time, and these episodes are still laying the foundation for what is to come. It will be the middle of the season before Avatar begins to reach its fullest potential.
Ah yes, the second part of the show's two-part introduction. Whereas the first episode was more expository, the second episode jump-starts the action by leading in with a dire premises: The enemy is going to confront the Avatar and his friends. The first clash of the two sides happens in the second episode of the series.
We start where the first episode left off: The fire ship beacon is high in the air, and a guilty Katara and Aang return to the village. The interesting bit here is that other than Katara, nobody seems to have faith in the, albeit unrevealed, Avatar. The resulting banishment and Katara's reluctance to let Aang go signifies the starting point of, and defines, their general relationship.
The rest of this episode is basically mirrored at some point. Zuko invades the village, then Katara and Sokka "invade" the ship.
First, the Fire Nation attacks the village, perhaps the most intimidating scene in the whole episode, were it not for Sokka's slightly comical behavior. Still, Zuko's demeanor in the village shows that he's a strong baddie. Aang beware.
From here on, the episode becomes very action orientated, which is in good balance to the first episode, which was more story orientated. Aang's airbending on the ship, as well as his fights with Zuko, score pretty high on the awesomeness scale. That, coupled with finally seeing Appa fly, would already make great episode. But the writers give us yet another cherry on top.
I am, of course, talking about the Aang-goes-Avatar-State part. Aang falls into the water, Katara shouts out his name ... then we get the awesome Avatar theme along with an all-glowy Aang, who masterfully bends himself out of the water, disabling all the Fire Nation troops on deck in the process. This could very well be the best scene in the entire show, and still, when I think about it, it make me want to cheer Aang on.
Another nice tidbit is the constant and constantly changing and adapting music during the whole ship scene. The ship's interior, Aang's fight with Zuko, the Avatar State, and even Katara waterbending get their own music, something that accentuates the events happening on screen very well.
In the end, the gang gets away safely, and decides to start their adventure by traveling to the other side of the world. That this will mean plenty of exciting encounters between the two poles should be evident, but even more so when Aang suggests various irrelevant, yet probably fun, activities for underway. It is this lighthearted approach to the long trip that is a good ending note for this episode. After all the dark and danger with Zuko, this ending gives the whole following show and the prospect of travel an optimistic feel. An excellent episode indeed.
The first two chapters of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" are easily seen as the exposition to the great story. Like an exposition on a story map is supposed to do, the characters, setting, and plot are introduced and explained. The characters being the protagonist group: Aang, Katara, and Sokka. And the antagonist group: Prince Zuko, and Uncle Iroh. The setting is of course a world in conflict, and the plot is of course that the Avatar has returned, hopefully to save the Earth.
"The Avatar Returns" picks up directly from where "The Boy in the Iceberg" left off, with Aang being banished from the Water Tribe village for the events he triggered in the last chapter. Following that is possibly the best introduction to a Fire Navy Ship (like there's been that many) in the series. It's a chilling sight to witness David versus Goliath, Sokka stands on the "defense wall" as a titanic monster of iron emerges from the fog. The animation and music throughout this scene perfectly sets up Prince Zuko's inevitable arrival.
In order to save the village from Zuko's wrath, Aang reveals himself as the Avatar and agrees to go with the exiled Prince. Zuko just oozes awesomeness with all of his lines throughout this episode, especially when exchanging with Aang, so special kudos to Dante Basco. The animation is very well done in this episode as well; it especially shines in the brawl between protagonist and antagonist. It is well choreographed with some awesome looking martial arts moves throughout. The music is also especially great throughout the chapter, but like the animation, is best during the Aang versus Zuko scenes.
A noteworthy mention goes to Iroh, and his great voice artist, Mako. Despite the fact that the retired General doesn't get that many scenes, the ones that he is in are splendid. I especially liked his look when he awoke and came out to the deck to see a giant snow white bison fly off into the sky.
The color scheme throughout most the episode is a polar blue, which matches the arctic setting. It is pulled off well most of the time, and I'm glad it wasn't too over the top since we see so much of it. Fire red was used for the interior of Zuko's ship, which also fits the location. The last color scheme that was pulled off was a sun set orange for the closing scenes. This is more in contrast with what we will see from the rest of the Season.
Overall, "The Avatar Returns" does a great job of winding up the conflicts for our young gang. It also does a splendid job to show us the personalities of both our protagonists and our antagonists. Something that sets the Avatar series apart from others is that the "bad guys" are well set up and in some episodes they end up stealing the show because of their great personalities. Even in this early stage you know that there is more to Prince Zuko then meets the eye. "The Avatar Returns" remains an episode with few, if any faults, but nothing too spectacular.