‘Rebel Spirit’ was a very different episode that detached itself from the commonalities of Book 1, and even resembled Avatar: The Last Airbender in a lot of respects. ‘The Southern Lights,’ likewise, strays from Book 1 in the majority of its attributes, but more so in that it doesn’t even resemble the episode before it. The payoff is similarly successful to the previous installment, however, it’s the quality and quantity of content present that pushes ‘The Southern Lights’ beyond ‘Rebel Spirit.’
For me, this episode succeeds in an identical fashion to ‘Turning the Tides’ from the first season. It throws so much at you (action, comedy, drama, etc.) at a quick enough pace to where the audience can take a step back from the storytelling and characters and focus on being entertained. The catch with this episode, however, is that, unlike ‘Turning the Tides,’ it attempts to juggle the storytelling and character relationships along with everything else going on. The result is an episode that is strongest when the action kicks in, and a bit weaker at its most stoic states.
Granted, such is not the case with all of the drama. In fact, Tenzin and his family’s visit to the Southern Air Temple contains a number of humorous and nostalgic scenes that keep it from falling flat. Seeing Jinora admire a monument of Aang in the statue room, first introduced in episode two of the original series, is an especially endearing juncture. The flaws are primarily exploited on Korra’s journey to the “spiritual center of the Southern Water Tribe.”
Harkening back to the Jinora scene, one of the reasons why it is so effective is because there isn’t any dialogue. As she stares at the statue, we understand that she is in awe from seeing her grandfather for the first time in physical form before her. In the Korra centric portions, the audience is force-fed an annoying amount of exposition about the Ever Storm, and spirits dancing in the sky, that dampen the dialogue to an extent.
Fortunately, Unalaq’s exposition-heavy speeches lead to an impressive flashback sequence narrated by Tonraq, depicting his banishment from the Northern Water Tribe. Apart from some thrilling action scenes, it’s nice to delve into the history of Tonraq and Unalaq’s sibling rivalry.
The character interaction remains solid overall, but some of the conflicts between characters like Mako and Korra feel a bit repetitive. If you pay attention to Korra and Mako’s relationship arc in ‘Rebel Spirit,’ you’ll notice just how methodical it is: Korra is stressed out and takes it out on Mako, Mako doesn’t know how to deal with it and takes the heat, and by the end of the episode, after facing genuine danger, the two make up. It’s not a huge problem, certainly not this early on when their relationship hasn’t developed, but it works noticeable less well in its second outing. The pacing, too, is a little bumpy due to the constant bouncing back and forth to follow both Team Avatar and Tenzin’s family, but the episode does a good job of disguising it with more lengthy scenes.
So, now that the cons have been addressed, it’s time to move onto the pros, of which there are many. First off, if the last third of ‘Rebel Spirit,’ was any indicator of the animation quality, the ‘The Southern Lights’ is a beacon of hope. The animation is gorgeous and I now have full confidence in Studio Pierrot.
From the big, beautiful landscapes of the Southern Air Temple to the awe-inspiring sight of the Southern lights returning, the design quality is incredible. The fight scenes are choreographed expertly and have fittingly unstable (imaginary) camera views. Seriously, sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re watching an animated television show and not a live-action movie… The cinematography is THAT good. The spirits continue to vary in figure and look great in their own ways, but I thought the snake-like spirits in the third act had some particularly well animated moments, such as when they stretched into a multitude of strands to latch onto Korra.
The action is intense and fast paced. A spirit attack out in the snow toward the halfway mark, a couple of battles in the flashback sequences, and Korra’s struggle inside the icy-caves in the final act are all very exciting to see unfold. One detail during Korra’s fight that had me bursting out with joy is when she throws a punch into a spirit’s mouth, then proceeds to firebend, blowing it to pieces.
The comedy also hits its mark on numerous occasions. Bolin has plenty of time to shine and takes advantage of it with his inflatable snow suit and, what I think is the funniest moment of the entire series so far, when a spirit phases into his snowmobile causing it to go haywire. ‘OHHH! It’s in the engine!’ – nothing short of comedy gold.
The second episode of the Book 2 premiere amps up the nostalgia factor, animation, action, comedy, and the amount of material. There are twice as many standouts as the first part of the premiere, but there are also a fair number of issues. It’s the positive facets, though, that put ‘The Southern Lights’ ahead of ‘Rebel Spirit.’ I reward it with a 9/10, for superseding ‘Rebel Spirit,’ but not enough to push it into 9.5 territory.
After finishing the episode, I wondered if the journey to the South Pole would have been more interesting if it were just Korra versus the elements (and maybe a spirit or two). While I still wish to see a ‘The Southern Raiders’-style episode with Mako and Bolin at some point in the series, my newest request is a ‘Zuko Alone’-style episode starring Korra in which she is forced to survive on her own (I’m petitioning for it as you read).
Leave your thoughts in the comments section about ‘The Southern Lights’ and let me know: What sort of episode are you most interested in seeing in The Legend of Korra series?