The Problem With Avatar…

See, Disney can keep a secret after all.
A bunch of rich white guys announce a way to make money off a bunch of poor blue people.
I would guess that they have been scrambling to put this big Avatar deal together for some time, hoping perhaps to have it wrapped up for a big D-23 Expo reveal… alas that never happened.  But better late then never so last week Disney proudly dropped the bomb that Avatar would be rolling into Disney’s Animal Kingdom around 2016.
The answer to our prayers? Why are you even praying about theme parks anyway?
Disney fans the world over have rejoiced!  Spontaneous parties have erupted in the streets at every Disney park around the globe (oddly enough even at Pleasure Island where bewildered and dazed drunkards wished each other Happy New Year before donning 3-D glasses, curling up into the fetal position and quietly sobbing at the remains of the Adventurers Club). The Disney community has universally supported this bold move to bring visionary filmmaker James Cameron on board to save the parks… the only thing is they haven’t.  In fact this mega super secret surprise announcement intended to shock us all into wetting our pants with anticipation has largely been met with malaise and indifference.  A collective shoulder shrug, the “meh” heard around the world.
But why?  Obviously this is Disney’s BIG answer to The Whimsical Wonderland of Harry Potter (or whatever that dump is called… OK, even I admit its pretty sweet).  It is not the gussied up Fantasyland or a refreshed Star Tours; it is this.  Avatar is the savior of Disney… the goliath meant to beat back the advancements of Universal and once again secure Disney’s spot as the king of the parks. On the surface it makes sense I guess… Avatar has made more money then any single movie ever…a lot more! In fact it made more than double what the highest grossing Harry Potter movie has made. Avatar stands at $2,782,275,172 while the last Harry Potter film the Deathly Hallows Part 2 could barely scrounge up a paltry $1,325,136,868.  That means that more than twice as many people like Avatar than those who like Harry Potter, Avatarland will attract twice as many people as Potterland and I am guessing Universal will go bankrupt somewhere around 2017 causing the parks to close and a lot of Harry Potter crap to be sold on eBay (I might buy that giant castle because it would look sweet on the Parkeology campus made into a bounce house).
Everything MUST GO!
Not only that but there are two more Avatar movies on the way and as the Matrix has shown us two extra movies is ALWAYS a good thing.  Likewise Pirates of the Caribbean and others have proven that making back-to-back sequels to be released in consecutive years (as is the case with Avatar) is money in the bank… the surest way to produce the highest quality and ensure creative integrity.  This is such a no brainer I can’t believe no one thought of it before!
And yet it feels odd at best, and flat horribly wrong at worst.  Listen, I have no problem at all with Disney bringing in outside talent or turning to outside properties for inspiration.  I am old enough to vividly recall the outrage and anger from long time Disneyland fans when in the 80′s it was announced that Disney was daring to work with George Lucas to bring Star Wars and Indiana Jones into the parks.  In those pre-internet olden times the word did not travel quite as fast but there were literally petitions and picketers!  There were die-hards camped outside the gates of Disneyland holding signs up telling visitors how Walt was rolling in his grave / liquid nitrogen vacuum chamber over this travesty.  The whole time I thought it was kind of cool and of course the results turned out to be stellar.
In your face losers!
Disney apologists will also be quick to point out that Snow White, Cinderella and pretty much everything that we associate as being “Disney” are in fact stolen borrowed from other outside sources as well… novels, nursery rhymes, fairy tales what have you. You think Disney wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or invented Winnie the Pooh?
The magical world of Panorda Journey to the Center of the Earth.
So then why should we not be excited about Avatar?  Disney points out the huge success that they have had with outside sources and Cameron is nothing if not an egotistical loon… I mean super successful auteur who demands nothing but the best.  Plus Animal Kingdom needs expansion badly.  Since day one (1998) Animal Kingdom has promised us mythical creatures that for the most part have just never been delivered.  The general message of Avatar (don’t mess with nature or it will kill you dead you weak pathetic human) is the exact same as that of Animal Kingdom.  Moreover Disney can make Pandora (the lazily named planet Avatar is set on and also an internet streaming music service) look really great… in fact they already have.  If you get on a plane and fly to Tokyo Disney Sea (something you really should do)  you can get an early preview on what an Avatarland looks like right now.  Ride Journey to the Center of the Earth, despite being built nearly a decade before Avatar was released the first half of the ride looks pretty much identical to the bioluminescent world of Pandora.  Still not enough?  Jump over to the other big ride in the Mysterious Island section of the park… Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  There you will find some tall, lanky blue aliens with hearts of gold… they pretty much look exactly like the Na’vi, the tall, lanky blue aliens with hearts of gold featured in Avatar.  So slam dunk then, Disney has this in the bag.
Hard to tell but this guy is tall, blue and loves you.
But still… it feels off.
Is it that one of the major reasons Harry Potter works so well in a theme park is because the source material created an engaging and deep physical world that was populated with humans and the things humans need?  You have specific buildings and specific transportation and restaurants with specific foods and shops with specific merchandise and it can all be made into real things for real people to interact with, ride on, eat and purchase. Universal truly did a fine job, but the job was so easy!  All they had to do is copy what was in the books and movies and make them real, then stick price tags on them for us to scoop up and buy.  Butter Beer…CHECK, Chocolate Frogs…CHECK, Wizardly Wands… CHECK.  See that big ole castle… looks just like the one in the movie, see that bare, exposed steel roller coaster over there… exactly like the one in the book… oh never mind.
Exactly as J.K. envisioned it!
Avatar has none of that.  Avatar has jungles and creatures that like to have sex using pony tales or something… in fact the entire idea of a store on Pandora not only makes no sense, it is fundamentally against the entire message of the film (watch Fern Gully… same message, pretty much the same movie for that matter). So Disney is behind the eight ball on this right away. What do Na’vi eat?  Bugs or some glowing papaya looking thing?  I don’t know btu I don’t want to buy any of it.  Where do they live? In mud huts or floating lilly pads… I don’t recall but again I don’t want to stay there. Cameron has made a big deal saying that people did not want to leave the world of Pandora but is that true?  Do you know anyone who felt that way?  I sure don’t. Disney can and will find ways to have restaurants and shops and buildings to house it all in… but unlike Potter where all that works to enforce the story and make the world complete here it will be at odds with the source material.
Coming soon… get used to it.
Then you have Cameron himself.  I bet this guy causes problems.  I know next to nothing about him so don’t listen to me but what I do know is that he is a control freak.  I know that he obsessed over minute details of china patterns and so forth while filming Titanic and I know that he is difficult to work with because he wants everything to be perfect or in other words his way.  Not necessarily bad things… I bet Walt was very much the same way (he did have exquisite taste in china)… But now you are going to have Cameron running around dictating things to the people at WDI who have to make it real, make it work, make it on time and make it within a budget.  I just sort of get the sense that Cameron’s blue screen world may not mesh super well with the REAL three-dimensional world WDI has to deal with.  I wonder who would win in a cage match between Cameron and Joe Rohde… we may find out.
Probably a really easy guy to work with.
You also get the final disappointment in the realization that dragons and miniatures are never coming to Animal Kingdom now.  Tetraoterons and Sturmbeests and other digital blue things that vaguely look like dinosaurs have replaced them.  Though I have never been a huge fan of fantasy worlds like Dungeons and Dragons and I have never met a unicorn that I did not want to smack across the face I somehow feel they just fit Animal Kingdom better than sci-fi creatures do.  They are not the same thing. Dragons and company have been ingrained in world cutures for thousands of years, can you name or even really recall one Avatar beast?
Maybe canceling Beastly Kingdom is OK afterall.
Perhaps most annoying is that as Disney struggled to find an answer to Potter surely they looked at Star Wars. A property that they could further tap into that is even deeper, more popular and proven than Potter.  It has restaurants (hello, cantina) and shops (step right up and buy a really expensive light saber folks) and more diverse locations and creatures than any company could ever fit into a park.  I think they even have room in Disney’s Hollywood Studios if they ripped out the aging Indy Stunt show and took over that entire quarter of the park.  WDI is full of smart people… they could figure out a way to build a bridge or a tunnel or a boat on a river or whatever to get people into a huge new section of the park.  Who knows, maybe Star Wars is still somehow part of some distant plan.
Yea, this sucks… no need to look into this.
But back to Avatar, what really worries me at the end of the day is that this feels like a Universal move.  In fact I am shocked it is not going into Universal. That does not make it good or bad it just is what it is, it feels more like something that would fit better into Islands of Adventure than it does Animal Kingdom.
But I hope I am wrong here… and I mean I seriously do.  Given the right budget and time I see no reason why Avatar cannot be a cool area with cool rides.  Heck, just build Journey to the Center of the Earth… overlay Avatar and I would be pretty happy.  Animal Kingdom manages to hide most of it’s buildings now and there is no reason why they cannot continue to do so and maybe the clout Cameron certainly wields will be forceful enough to pressure Disney into doing this right. But while Potter and Star Wars are now timeless classics Avatar has a lot to prove and a long way to go.  Will it become part of our cultural lexicon or will it just be some fad movie that made some cash because it was in the right time at the right place?
I want to like this, I want to be excited about it, I want to stand up and cheer… but right now I just can’t.  I need to be won over as I bet many Disney fans do… I hope Disney can come through on this.
However I have to admit… that girl Na’vi is pretty hot… so it has THAT gong for it at least
Keeping my fingers crossed for now.

18 thoughts on “The Problem With Avatar…

  1. Great post!! I’m even making my non-Disney-obsessed husband read this. The whole avatar thing doesn’t sit well with me, but I guess we’ll just wait and see… agreed though – Star Wars makes SO much more sense..

  2. A fundamental error Disney is making with Avatar is the assumption that high box office equates with cultural resonance. For a movie that made a lot of money the only thing anyone remembers about Avatar is that it made a lot of money. No one quotes it. No one can name any characters from it. No one remembers the song from it (that’s right, it had a song, remember?). Everyone just quietly went to their local theater, handed over their money, and promptly forgot everything about this movie. So why wouldn’t you want to build multimillion dollar attractions based on it?

    I am very much in the same camp of hoping this works out for the best.

  3. I found it funny this news broke the same week as the Netflix “apology.” They both just seemed so out from left field (and evoked the same reaction, “They can’t be serious!”)

    Though I really hope they go all shock and awe with this and really knock it out of the park. And I couldn’t help but think of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Hopefully, this brings some other things we haven’t been able to see state-side (trackless dark rides?)

  4. I agree with everything in this post. Despite the movie’s message, it’s still sci fi with aliens and doesn’t belong in Animal Kingdom which typically is based on real animals and culture’s interpretation of said animals.

    It feels cheap and forced. What if those sequels bomb? What if it doesn’t have that timeless quality that Disney movies and Harry Potter seems to have? (and I already think it doesn’t- who remembers it outside of the graphics). It’s an odd move, totally out of left field to me. I’m surprised at the number of fans who seems into it.

    Last point- precedence. If they can shoehorn this into AK, what’s keeping them from buying rights to future non-Disney, unproven movies and forcing them into large swaths of the parks?

  5. @ Tim:

    Well said. I think Avatar had huge hype around it, looked cool in 3-D and was sort of the 3-D “event” that people had been waiting for. It also played very well in foreign markets. but look at 3-D now… fading fast, peopel don’t care much anymore. They liked the tech aspects of the film, not the characters or the story or even the environments which frankly have all been seen before. I honestly cannot remember one characters name. I am not even a fan of Harry Potter, have never read a Potter book and have seen a grand total of ONE Potter movie and yet I coudl name you at least half a dozen or more characters because it is part of pop culture.

  6. @ Jessica:

    I think the point about being timless is really important.

    By the time Star Wars and Indy were brought into the parks they had established themselves as classics. Potter feels like it has been around forever which is a huge part of its success and yet Avatar feels liek nothing… it feels like a tech demo I saw at a CES show a few years back… who cares?

    Myabe the next two movies will cement it as a classic but they coudl just as easily be liek the last two Matrix movies only serving to destroy the impact of the original. This seems like a huge and pretty needless risk. Disney coudl build Beastly Kingdom… rock it out and make it incredible and that would be awesome… now that can never happen.

  7. The GMR woudl be a no brainer for it… but that is not grand enough for what Cameron and I am sure Disney want. Even if they did a huge Avatar world for that park I would be A-OK with it. It just feels a tad forced to put it in AK. With all that said lets not forget that both Dinosaur and It’s Tough to be a Bug are based on movies as well… even if peopel tend to forget that.

  8. Perfect post. expressed everything I was feeling and said it better (and more cleverly). In general, I’m kind of over these movie-specific lands…bug lifes playground and toystory playlands dont seem to have the same attention to detail. Cars land looks like it will be better. hopefully we’ll get something closer to that level of detail

  9. I pretty much said everything I really feel like saying about Avatar on my own blog (and Inside the Magic), but I do think you hit it on the nose with the statement that it was a very Universal thing to do. Except that Universal already has a franchise about environmental issues that it’s movie actually got pretty much right and not just an extended allegory reframing nature as a computer system.

    I will say, however, in response to the argument that Disney is taking other source material and making it it’s own is that… well.. yes they do. They do make it their own. It’s preposterous to argue that 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Centre of the Earth haven’t been imprinted in a way that distinguishes it from the over 100 year-old literature and makes it a Disney product. Likewise with Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, whichever of the frequently rewritten and altered original sources one looks at.

  10. Cory:

    The reason it feels liek a Universal moves is that tend to gravitate towards things that are popular at the moment and not always timeless.

    While I do think Potter will stand the test of time and I love Jurassic Park as a theme for example one must question BackDraft or WaterWorld or whatever… they have a long list of using good, but less then great or classic films to base attractions on.

    I LOVE the movie Jaws… but do I think the Munny deserves a long standing theme park attraction… um, no.

    Avatar may or may not be a meaningul long term, relevant movie, I tend to think that it will not be, but who knows. But they have access to things that ARE long term meaningful pop culture events… Star Wars, Pirates, Pixar etc… Lion King just made 60 mil in a 2 week rerelease… the classics stand up… Avatar… who knows?

  11. One thing I’ve noticed in all of the Avatar discussion is the wait-and-see approach to how timless the movies might turn out to be once the sequels come out. Wasn’t Star Wars considered a classic from the first movie? Raiders of the Lost Ark? No one had to wonder if these would get better somehow by virtue of their sequels. Can anyone think of any movies that weren’t really considered classics until the sequels came out?

  12. Good point Tim.

    Maybe the James Bond franchise? I am not sure… Dr. no was certainly good but I don’t think it was until Goldfinger, the third Bond movie, that it really became a classic franchise.

    But in general you are correct… is anyting sequels tend to make movies WORSE… look at the Matirx (as the original artical pointed out) or the Pirates franchise.

    Even movies with good sequels, say liek Back to the Future or Indy, are already beloved before the sequels hit.

    Honestly, does anyone LOVE Avatar? Maybe they do… maybe I am just ignorant to the legions od Avatards or whatever they call themselves… but I have never heard one single person talk about that film beyond the time it was released. At that point it became the thing to see because it was good 3-D and all of that… but that is not the same as being a loved film because of it’s characters or setting or whatever.

    Truly… I think one guy was named Jake and that it the sum total I can tell you about Avatar… does not bode well.

  13. Jennifer…

    Don’t be embarassed! I’m glad to hear that there are peopel who truly LOVE it.

    I may very well be way out of touch… to me it just does not seem to be the cultural touchstone of some others… but I hope there are millions more like you.

  14. I don’t doubt that people can love the movie. Probably just about every single movie ever made has someone that loves it. However, the very fact that we are questioning the “lovablity” of Avatar should tell us (and hopefully Disney) something.

  15. Have to say I’m pretty much aligned with what everyone else is saying. My response was an initial “Really? Is this an April Fools Joke?” followed by a “Yikes, this won’t work” and then after thinking about it, “meh.”

    It *could* work–but I think an Avatar based land has a lot of hurdles to cross. I am one of the few who never saw the flick, but even if I assume it is terrific…I see all the concerns others have outlined.

    1) Even if there are a number of folks who love the film, I don’t think the property/characters/world is “beloved.” Star Wars characters are beloved. Harry Potter characters are beloved. I think Avatar was more about being the right movie at the right time.

    2) From what I can tell, the locations and concepts do not easily translate to a theme park environment. Will it just come off looking like Adventureland? What is the food or merchandise folks will have to have?

    3) I question the fit in Animal Kingdom.

    It really seems like this is more about preventing Universal from getting it than it is about it being the best fit for Disney.

    Brer Dan

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