<EM>Avatar</EM>'s Aang Avatar's Aang

Ask any kid and they'll likely be able to tell you all about the incredible animated adventure Avatar: The Last Airbender (premiering tonight, 8:30 pm/ET, Nickelodeon). But the youngsters aren't the only ones watching this fable of a boy trying to save the world: One notable proponent is M. Night Shyamalan, who has signed on to direct three live-action movies based on the adventures of Aang and his friends. Avatar has also found a devoted following among fans of Hayao Miyazaki's work (like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Like Tolkien's epic tale, Avatar was always conceived as a trilogy, making this third season its last, and that suits the show's creators, Michael DiMartino, 33, and Bryan Konietzko, 31, just fine. "We're excited that we get to end it in a big bang," says Konietzko. "It had to have a beginning, middle and end."

The story begins and ends with Aang — the reincarnated Avatar (the only person capable of "bending" all four elements) — and his friends, the waterbender Katara, her brother Sokka, and Aang's faithful critter companions, Appa the flying six-legged bison and Momo, a leaping lemur. Together they try to defend their world from the vicious Fire Nation, who are out to dominate the peaceful Water and Earth kingdoms. Along the way they make friends, have a lot of laughs, and encounter incredible creatures and places. It isn't all fun and games, though. Philosophically challenging ideas run through Avatar as well, including the relationship between parents and children, the experience of loss, the meaning of honor and what constitutes a family.

At the heart of Avatar is an array of sympathetic and complex characters. Even the show's primary bad guy, the disgraced Prince Zuko, is more than a paper cutout. "We didn't want the traditional villain," says DiMartino. "Even though he was hunting the Avatar, he had to have more depth and a dark backstory; of all the characters, he has the most distance to travel emotionally." As for Avatar's breathtaking animation, much of it comes from the real scenery and environments that inspire the artists' work. In preparation for this season, Konietzko traveled to Iceland, where he took "location-scouting photos" to capture the look of a volcanic island for the Fire Nation, where Aang and his gang will be traveling this season. As the new season begins, Aang's signature bald-and-tattooed head has sprouted hair, which helps as he and his friends make their way into the Fire Nation in disguise, seeking out the Fire Lord for one final showdown.

For the "bending" moves, DiMartino and Konietzko, both fans of kung-fu movies and yoga, hired martial-arts expert Sifu Kisu to help create an authentically physical form of magic. "We wanted something that's an art form, that came out of a tradition, rooted in something real," says Konietzko, who began learning northern Shaolin fighting from Kisu about five years ago. "I'm terrible at it. But it's been really fun, because we end up drawing all this stuff, translating it into animation, describing energy moving through the body."

Konietzko deals more with the art side of things, whereas DiMartino works on the writing of the show. Both veterans of King of the Hill and former classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design, Bryan and Mike see eye-to-eye on most things. "Trying to do something this ambitious in a TV framework, it's really helpful to have a like-minded person you know and trust," says Konietzko. "Of course, Mike and I debate and argue — we used to play Ping-Pong to settle arguments. But then Mike got really good."

The show is animated in Korea, where "pretty much all [animated] TV shows on American channels are done," explains Konietzko. "That's been the case for decades. The Simpsons, King of the Hill — they do the preproduction in America, and the production is in Korea or in some cases China, or occasionally Japan or India." The show has caught on in Korea and throughout Asia, and the guys are planning to promote the Korean artists they work with, because "a lot of the Korean public don't know that shows are made there," says Konietzko. "So we've always wanted to promote it there as a product of their artists."

Even though the trilogy is on its final leg, it hardly spells the end of Avatar: DiMartino and Konietzko are developing a new Avatar-inspired project. "Luckily the world is really expansive and we are still inspired by it; we can't stop coming up with ideas," says Konietzko. And Shyamalan's films seem like a natural extension of Avatar to the show's creators. "We're always striving to make Avatar look like a cinematic, live-action movie," says Konietzko. "It would be great if we could actually go to Iceland and shoot there." Adds DiMartino, "Considering that M. Night Shyamalan is doing it, we'll certainly shoot in Philadelphia."

Check out previous Avatar adventures in our Online Video Guide.

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