Korra bends fire and water in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon)Link
Korra demonstrates earth-, water- and firebending in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon)Link
Janet Varney, left, voices waterbender Korra, the Avatar and title character in "The Legend of Korra." (Paul Smith; Nickelodeon)Link
J.K. Simmons, left, voices Tenzin, an airbender who is one of Aang's children, in "The Legend of Korra." Tenzin serves as a mentor to Korra. (Nickelodeon)Link
David Faustino, right, voices Mako, a firebender who is friends with Korra in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Brad Buckman)Link
P.J. Byrne, right, voices Bolin, an earthbender and friend to Korra, in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Bjoern Kommerell)Link
Daniel Dae Kim, right, voices Sato in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon)Link
Mindy Sterling, right, voices Chief Lin Beifong, an earth- and metalbender, in "The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon; Leslie Bohm)Link
Korra and her friends Mako and Bolin. (Nickelodeon)Link
From back, Tenzin, Mako, Bolin, Pabu and Korra. (Nickelodeon)Link
Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, co-creators of "The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra." (Robert Voets/Nickelodeon)Link
"Avatar: The Last Airbender": Katara, a young Waterbender and her warrior brother Sokka rescue a strange boy, Aang, from a cavernous iceberg. (Nickelodeon)Link
It’s doubtful that they have Saturday morning cartoons in the police-state future of “The Hunger Games” (in fact, they probably don’t even have Saturdays in the no-fun nation of Panem), but if they did, Katniss Everdeen would see a kindred spirit in “The Legend of Korra,” the ambitious new Nickelodeon series that premieres April 14.
Flinty, brave, loyal, impatient, impertinent, fierce and dangerous — Katniss and Korra have plenty in common and both live in a world that is close to our own but tilted by desperation and dark miracles of magic or science. If the pair attended the same high school, they could go out for the archery team and commiserate about how their names sound like two new lines of Ikea cabinets.
For “Korra” co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, it’s heartening to see teen heroines get a major spotlight in any medium. “But you know,” Konietzko said dryly, “there’s room for a lot more than two.” Kim Possible, the Powerpuff Girls and She-Ra are among the animation heroines who beat the gender odds and got their own series, but, really, when it comes to legacy and expectations, the biggest rival for “The Legend of Korra” is the show’s own heritage.
The new series is a sequel saga to one of Nickelodeon’s signature successes, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which premiered in 2005 and won over a wide, loyal following (it consistently ranked in television’s top five animated shows among boys ages 6-11) with the tale of a boy named Aang who can manipulate fire, water, air and earth. Those abilities mark him as an “avatar,” and a figure of destiny in his world, which seems like a more supernatural magical and tribal counterpart to 19th century Earth.
“Avatar: the Last Airbender” found its animation aesthetic in anime but to fill out this other world the writing and art team drew on a wide range of influences (Chinese history, Hinduism, Inuit culture and yoga among them) and that gave the three-season series a surprising richness; “SpongeBob SquarePants” may possess a special genius of its own but “Avatar” is the only Nickelodeon show with a Peabody Award on the mantle.
The new show takes the story forward 70 years. Aang is gone but hardly forgotten — there’s a majestic statue of him in the harbor of bustling Republic City, which feels like old San Francisco and Hong Kong mashed-up and dropped into the topography of Vancouver, Canada. This is where the new avatar — a headstrong 17-year-old named Korra (voiced by Janet Varney) — arrives for the training she’ll need to become a worthy heir to Aang and a champion in a troubled time. Her mentor is Aang’s son, Tenzin (J.K. Simmons).
“All the old characters — Aang, Katara, Sokka — as these heroic figures and Aang casts a constant shadow over Korra and Tenzin who are trying constantly to live up to his legend,” DiMartino said. “Tenzin is trying to be the man that his father was and expects him to be and he’s carrying on his culture.”
The show is packed with steam punk touches and a culture that takes on different shapes as magic and technology combine and compete; flying beasts circle the skyline and other people who possess the ability to “bend” fire or water or earth (none of them can bend all three of those plus air, that’s the distinction of the avatar) have professional sports league where they test their skills in a sport as fantastical as Quidditch in the “Harry Potter” stories.
The characters are hand-drawn, a point of pride for the “Korra” team that fills an entire wing at Nickelodeon’s Burbank studios, but the approach might test the traditional assumptions of that term with a stylus and screen replacing the art table approaches of the past. The backgrounds of the series are infused with light, detail and texturing that go far beyond most shows — art director Konietzko set the bar high and he admits that the workload has been grueling.
“We have to live up to what we’ve done in the past and now we have to live up to the goals we’ve set, which are even higher,” Konietzko said. He added that the new series is leaner in its focus — it will stay on the core mythology and not meander as much as the previous series — and meaner as the world it presents. Politics and cultural divides will also push the show’s ambitions up another notch as far the content expectations of a cartoon series.
Really, though, the biggest question facing Korra is with her audience. With her powers and fighting ability, she can hold her own against any boy in her world, but will she be able to win over the affections of a young male audience here on Earth? She’ll need that for the show to qualify as a hit. Brown Johnson, president of animation for Nickelodeon, said the avatar will prove herself with any fan who watches, no matter their age or gender.
“There’s a generational shift that encourages girls to feel powerful — and for boys to see them as equals and partners,” Johnson said. “Korra takes the female hero to the next level and we are very proud to showcase her as the passionate teenage girl that she is.”
— Geoff Boucher
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