A genre that has always fascinated me is fantasy. The possibilities within these stories is limitless, giving the creator an ultimate authority to devise completely new worlds, rules, and life-forms. When done correctly, this openness can accentuate our own world, highlighting societal issues of race, wealth disparity, religious conflict, and sexuality. However, often times dragons are just dragons, and elves just elves, and the aspect that makes this genre truly magnificent fails to shine. Distracted by a desire to create a fully fleshed world, the characters become flat. Cardboard cut-outs of archetypes that seem to have not so much been birthed from the mind of their creator but regurgitated fall onto pages with transparent plot-points in a paint-by-numbers fashion narrative.
Two examples of fantasy that have characters who are just as rich (if not more so) than their surroundings are Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Secret of Kells. While neither are the “high fantasy” of traditional Western concept, they exist in worlds with different rules from our own and allow our imaginations to temporarily believe in the ability of bending, or the magic of a painted page.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, immediately offers a slight variation within the thesis/anti-thesis. The voice-over in the beginning belays the shift from the “normal” to the “new, upside down world” happened nearly a century before the story begins. This shift creates a juxtaposition between what the protagonist sees as the antithesis- the fact that the Fire Nation is trying to conquer the world- and the antithesis of the rest of the cast, which is the discovery of the Avatar, Aang, who can bring a stop to the invading armies. While the rest of the cast immediately recognize Aang’s importance, he is slow to accept his role as the savior, thus creating a rite of passage for him in discovery while he works to master all of the elements.
The uniqueness of Avatar shines in the emphasis that all the characters are going through their own right of passage. Katara struggles to let go of her mother’s death and shift from a motherly figure to one of power and aggression. Her older brother Sakka, overcomes his feelings of helplessness he masks through pride to realize that a true warrior is one who knows when to fight and when to stand down. Even the Zuko and Azula, the antagonists through nearly the entire series are coming to terms with the fact they were disappointments to their parents (with Zuko it was his father, and Azula her mother). The addition of characters who struggle, learn, and grow shift the story from a group of youngsters attempting to save the world to a telling of humanity. It tells how strength doesn’t come from supernatural power, but through determination and the struggle to overcome adversity.
The Secret of Kells, which doesn’t have the advantage of four season to flesh out its characters, still offers a rich assortment of engaging actors. The story is roughly based on Ireland’s brutal history with Vikings who regularly attacked monasteries and outposts. The basis of truth sets a strong foundation for the myths and legends that enrich the story. The beginning outlines a very normal world with the protagonist, Brendan wishing for something more beyond the walls of the abbey. His wish is granted when an old monk named Aiden comes to them in hopes to complete the Book of Kells. Conscripted to assist the old man, Brendan ventures into the forest where he meets Aisling, the forest spirit, and eventually must fight the Crom Cruach, the deity of death and destruction.
Brendan’s adventure fits neatly into a rite of passage tale but the underpinnings of nature vs man and man’s own fight against darkness and chaos offer structural support to what could have been a very straightforward narrative. It also offers a gloomier contrast the the bright, somewhat whimsical artistic stylings of the animation which serves to emphasize that there is the possibility for good, or evil, in everything.