Joho the BlogJames Cameron re-films Fern Gully, but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist! - Joho the Blog

James Cameron re-films Fern Gully, but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist!

Avatar is a big, visually beautiful movie whose march to dumbville is relieved by only a couple of bright ideas.

One of the bright ideas is the one you enter the theater knowing [SPOILER ALERT, IF YOU HAVE AVOIDED ALL $150,000,000 SPENT ON MARKETING THIS MOVIE]: A human can mentally inhabit an alien’s body. After that, it’s pretty much all downhill, making it the world’s most expensive computer graphics demo. Cool graphics, though!

It’s actually not a very imaginative movie. The landscapes are standard issue alternate-world stuff, albeit filled in with eye-gobbling detail. Worse, the plot and characters are straight out of a thousand other movies. There’s Mel Gibson doing his Brave Heart exhortation (right down to the blue skin). There’s Star Wars’ weirdly anti-technology message. And, yes, as my wife pointed out, most of all there’s Fern Gully‘s sentimental environmentalism. And these are not coy, arch Tarantino-esque references. They’re James Cameron thinking he’s touching our hearts and our minds. It’s pap. (For the record: So was Titanic.)

The racist tinge is the inverse of the old godawful racism that sees indigenous people as “savages” and “primitives.” Instead, Cameron sees them as wise, mother-earth-worshipping perfection. That’s a lot better, but you watch Avatar’s forest folks and see too many embarrassing resonances with stereotypes of native Americans, with occasional guest stereotypes making cameo appearances. (On the other hand, James Cameron’s most fully realized person in any of his movies was a cyborg, and #2 was a ship, so maybe we shouldn’t expect too much.)

It’s not a bad movie. The graphics were enough to carry me along for 2.5 hours. But it takes every opportunity to be predictable and sorta dumb. You leave wondering how many better movies could have been made if it’s $500M budget had been divided among 500 young filmmakers.

11 Responses to “James Cameron re-films Fern Gully, but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist!”

  1. The best parallel that I’ve heard – storywise – is that Avatar is essentially and off-world Dances with Wolves.

  2. I like this review even before seeing the movie (which I started disliking even before this review).

    Here is another good take on Avatar:

  3. Ever since Star Wars, I have this nagging feeling that there is something kitschy in translating fantasy/tales stuff into ever more finite visual “embodiments”.

    Strangely related (in my mind, at least), today someone twitted something about Apple products not being “open”… and concluding “Open products are never awesome.”

    To which I replied: Now I know why I don’t like “awesome.”

  4. but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist!…

    Joho the Blog » James Cameron re-films Fern Gully, but in 3D! And uncomfortably near-racist!…

  5. the ferngully similarities are painful, but maybe the themes are reminiscent of historical peoples and events because of the truth in the statement skully makes when he slams the book down and says “this is how its done someone has something you want you make them your enemy and you take it”. Also as far as the stereotype similarities i think it is broadly inspired by tribal people who live in some sort of balance with the natural world, and i don’t see why thats a bad thing, but maybe i view the world too much thru movies.

  6. Avatar is not racist. It deals with race, and it’s directed by a white man who wasn’t an ethnic studies major. If it’s out of touch with the oversensitive mental gymnasts who studied media and race in college, so be it. Everyone is trying to shoehorn what Cameron did into less sophisticated and more transparent race narratives from movies that weren’t as good as Avatar. The analogies are sloppy and they fall far short of indicting this poignant, progressive film.

    This needs to be said. Lay white people can have valid, non-racist opinions about race. They can also make legitimate, insightful commentary about race by drawing up interesting parallels in fictitious blockbusters. If the people who criticize Avatar as racist can point to any piece of popular culture which comments on race and was piloted by a lay white person, my point will fall by the wayside. But if not, the strong correlation between the race of the movie director, author, or artist and the accusations of racism calls for the accusers to exercise a bit more restraint and reflection.

    When I first read Annalee Newitz’s post, I counter-posted a dissent and emailed it to her ( My major gripe was the cocksurety with which people trained to identify overly subtle racist tinges pull that trigger for their audiences instead of wording their accusations more as informed suggestions. It seems that people like Newitz seek out defensive positions from which to attack, and then they show no restraint or sense of balance when they feel they have a case. It’s academic terrorism. I mean, the frickin’ title of the blog post was “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” Talk about tactless (perhaps even racist).

    As for David’s mention of embarrassing stereotypes of Native Americans, I wonder whether the traits displayed are inherently embarrassing, or rather if those traits are only embarrassing because of the negative qualities which prejudiced individuals assume accompany such traits. I thought the core elements of Na’vi culture were portrayed as intelligent, honorable, and effective elements of a life sustaining culture. I’m not a Native American, but I really can’t imagine they would be embarrassed by the Na’Vi riding around on horses and belting out trilled war cries. They looked fierce and awe-inspiring.

    Let me try to make this personal. As an Irish American, I was proud of the crazy Irishman named Stephen in Braveheart, even as his craziness was (and still is) associated in America with alcoholism, rambunctiousness, and shoddy work ethic by prejudiced individuals. When the Irish first came to America, there were “NINA: No Irish Need Apply” signs in all the shops in WASP neighborhoods. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get all huffy as soon as my kind is portrayed on film. Especially not when the movie character approaches literary figuredom with lines like “In order to find his equal, an Irishman is forced to talk to God.”

    The same should apply to the Na’Vi. Let’s not bury the lede by skipping to the race wrinkle, and once we approach that part of the critical commentary in an organic matter, let’s inject at least as much ambiguity into our assessments as Cameron injected into his awesome movie.

    -Brown Bourne

  7. Avatar is not a march to dumbville relieved only by a few bright ideas.

    First of all, the foundation for a good movie is one stalwart bright idea, layered with carefulness, hard work, and patience. If you’ve done any research about James Cameron whatsoever, you’ll know that he embodies diligent, intellectual work ethic. Not dimwittedness. So if you’re acknowledging that he has at least a few bright ideas, then you’re suggesting that the flaw is in the process of making the movie or the acting. Which if you do you research (which you clearly didn’t before making ‘profound’ accusations) you would know.

    Second, the movie trailer revealing that a human can inhabit an alien movie is necessary to the plot; however is not the thread that sows the entire storyline to that. There is much more to the beautiful story which you evidently missed. There is philosophical dualism and physical and mental consequence at the route of the imaginative world. If you’re going to let the expensive marketing budget taint your actual critique of the movie, so be it. But if you strip the bs down to just the movie, then it holds strong and powerful.

    Now you say all these movies that Avatar is ‘knocking off’ from, forgetting that he wrote the movie in 1985. So, there goes him ripping the idea off the 1992 cartoon, fern gully. Also, all the messages of racism, environmentalism, technology are issue in thousands of other stories because they pertain to our world. They are repetitive problems that haven’t been solved. So, artist like James Cameron put their own inspired, authentic twist on unauthentic principles. Try not to get the two confused. James Cameron is an incredibly smart person, thus a lot of his success. So he is capable of reaching a larger audience then most artists can. If he is being pap for being popular, maybe reverse your analysis and question why he is so popular. Because he evokes emotions and thinking from SO MANY people. If that’s pap to you then fine.

    Also, you claim he isn’t imaginative because you’ve seen a lot of this before. DO me a favor and try to think of something completely original. I can tell you right now that whatever you are thinking of has a color seen before, made up of shapes you didn’t originate and sounds that you’ve been expose to. Imagination is altercation, which makes it authentic, not a hundred percent invention, but a combination that is innovative.

    Any movie with apparent race issues is going to take hit. Predictably like this critic. I like Brown Bourne’s response to the ‘racism’

    In short, James Cameron is very smart and I think this movie has a lot of philosophical depth to it. This alongside with the entrancing character of the movie makes it one of the better films I’ve seen in some time.

  8. Daniel, I’m glad you liked it. I didn’t. I’ve seen all of JC’s movies and have thought some of them were well-plotted, and some weren’t. (I thought Titanic was awful.) It has nothing to do with how smart JC is.

    There’s more discussion about whether Avatar is racist at this later post:

    There Emil S. links to David Brooks’ column on the topic, which I agree with and thought was well put:

  9. He wrote Avatar in 1995 (not 1985), 3 short years after Ferngully.

  10. sir,
    I first salute you and your team members for making out an exelent movie Avatar. Sir, with your combination, I would like to pitcher out a movie, Its is an hi5 movie and I’m sure about that this movie is going to be the next big hit.
    My movie’s name is NASTY ROB’S. And now I’m going to give an brief introduction about this movie.

    We do all know about the univers and galaxy’s. So, our galaxy is milkey way galaxy , in that their are number of solar systems. Among all thoes solar systems ours . Wail commiong to the point , a young scientist who is working in N.A.S.A. will discovers an new planet (which is their to our next solar system which is at a distance of 2 light years. It take 20 year to reach that planet ) he name it as PL-ZONE a. After his discovery the scientist who are superior to him, would not accpet what the young scientist says, and they ask him to sorry for it and they resign him. But, even of his resignation he still goes on wroking with it and he used to communicate with that planet, with a help of redio waves. Suddenly one day a massage comes form that planet an un-identified lauguage saying that (#@#$% ^%^&* ()(&%^%[email protected]$~~$%^R& %^%$&) and the same massage is send to the N.A.S.A. too, To de-code this massage he (SCIENTIST) take 6 mths. By going thourgh that massage he ………………………………………….??!!!! . And the N.A.S.A scientist will send an rob to that planet to check wather the aliens are help full or not? the rob is inventied in such a way that it even can destory the whole planet. After, 20 years your rob raches to that planet and ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..??????????


  11. To Daniel, who says he wrote it in 1985, I have a feeling you’re thinking of the comic Timespirits:

    He actually wrote it in 1995, indeed 3 years after Ferngully. Just a little correction there.

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