Do you remember the good ol’ days? When cartoons were full of heroic characters, fantastic villains, and exciting adventures? Remember the days of He-Man? Thundarr? Megatron? Visionaries? Orbots? Herculoids? Space Ghost? Mumm-Ra, the ever-living? Even She-Ra (in her “I’m just like He-Man but targeting the female demographic” kind of way)? For a kid like me, Saturday morning cartoons in the 80s were a treasury of imagination paving the way for a lifetime appreciation of science fiction and fantasy. Sure, they still tried to sell us on the merchandise, but the action figures allowed us to visualize our own stories with our favourite characters. Nowadays, besides the occasional Jackie Chan Adventure and the steady stream of DC superhero shows (which will almost all be ending this year), the thrill of adventure seems to have gone from cartoons—if I have to watch another show where characters duel with cards, I swear I’ll pikachu something!
Never fear! I come to you with three cartoons to fill the void, shows that are well made, fantastical and full of adventure. They all have clear origins in the world of anime, but combine that style with a North American sense of storytelling (as in “full of action”).
Avatar: The Last Airbender
I know. The name is oddly cryptic, but the show is the best cartoon on television. It’s the story of a young monk in a vaguely-Chinese world divided into four nations based on the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The monk is named Aang and he was discovered by the other two main characters Katara and Sokka, a brother and sister from the Water tribe at the North Pole. Y’see, Aang was frozen inside a glacier and apparently he is the Avatar—a mystical being who is reincarnated to save the world. Another cool thing about this world is that each of the four nations have individuals called “benders” who manipulate the element that they belong to. Katara is a water-bender, so she can move water with her mind. Aang, as the Avatar, has the ability to “bend” all of the elements. He needs to learn to use his powers, so with his new friends, he sets out on a quest to fulfill his destiny—saving the world from the Fire Nation—and meets all kinds of adventure along the way. Avatar is a masterpiece of hand-drawn animation (so refreshing in this age of computer graphics) that is so good I am shocked that no Japanese anime studios worked on it. The episodes are also very well written. The plots are well-conceived, but not too complex or mature for kids to understand. Plus there’s a lot of kid-sized humour thrown in for good measure. Avatar is a tale told in the classic style of a folk tale, with a timeless and enduring element of action-packed adventure. Shown on YTV.
5 out of 5
An odd blending of fantasy and sci-fi, this series is set in a futuristic world where humans ride dragons like horses. In fact, they don’t seem to use regular vehicles much. The dragons are all enhanced by cybernetic devices which help them jump, shoot grapples, glide, etc. The story is far less sophisticated than Avatar and focuses basically on a teenager named Artha Penn and his friends. Though they are all dragon racers, Artha’s alter-ego is the legendary figure known as the Dragon Booster, who partners with the Dragon of Legend, to help stop the war between humans and dragons (I know, it sounds frustratingly complex, but it’s really not important to the episodes). Week after week these good guys face off against the bad guys, led by Moordryd, the son of an evil mastermind who is always trying to get his hands on the Dragon of Legend. Frankly, the storylines are only OK, but they introduce all kinds of classic fantasy elements. The animation is pretty good—it’s computer animation done in a style that resembles hand-drawn (with outlines, etc.) and it’s generally a fun show to watch for something a little different. Shown on CBC. 3.5 out of 5
Though all three shows are greatly indebted to the tradition of Japanese anime, Skyland is the most like a Miyazaki story (think Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, or Laputa: Castle in the Sky). It’s the year 2251 and Mahad and his friends spend the morning flying their hover vehicles from one island to the next. Earth has splintered and land fragments hover in the sky around the planet’s core. The carefree morning soon gives way to drama as Mahad returns home just in time to help prevent his mother and sister Lena from being arrested by the robotic henchmen of Oslo, the dictator of Skyland. Lena and Mahad barely escape in a stolen patrol vehicle as their mother protects them with awesome powers that they didn’t know she had, but eventually she gives herself over to Oslo’s custody. What follows is a journey of discovery as the siblings meet up with a group of freedom fighters and learn some secrets about their father. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it’s a really exciting beginning with much potential. The animation is also computer generated, but the scenes are really epic in scale and the character expressions and physical motions are top-notch. I can’t wait to see more. Debuts April 22 on Teletoon. 4.5 out of 5.