Technological advances from one day to the next has been impacting every industry. This easily increases the dimensions of the toolkit available to film makers. Though a predominantly commercial medium, the art form that is, does not need all the latest from the tech world to be the best it can be. Here are two movies which waited for technology to catch up before they could be realized – ‘Avatar: The way of water’ and ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’. And being released around the same time, I was quite intrigued by how these entirely different works came into being. Looking at both of them together seemed like a way to go about it.
Avatar: The way of water, continues the story after ten years from where it left off in the first installment from 2009. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have a big family and are leading the Navi resistance against the humans trying to colonize Pandora. When humans send recombinants (Navi avatars of humans) to find Jake, he realizes that it has become personal and for the safety of the entire tribe, flees with his family to the islands of the water tribe Metkayina. Just like how Jake tried to learn the Navi ways in Avatar 1, he and his family learn the Metkayina ways in Avatar 2. And like any other self-respecting pursuers, the humans comb thorough one island after another until they find Jake’s family. They get Jake to surrender by targeting his children. Family and the indigenous fauna come together in offensive and humans have to make their retreat once again.
As a sequel of the biggest box office success, it had its own challenges and opportunities. The sequel came after a 12-year break and there were a lot of technological advances all around. ‘People were using social media a lot more and it would take plenty to engage them for over three hours.Though 3D did not pick up as anticipated, the democratization of many visual technologies through mobile had given the general public much insight and practice with creating their own videos.’
And yet the opportunity was immense. As a new franchise, it could take on any territory from where things ended in Avatar 1. It was as if a blank canvas though a challenging one at that was available for David Cameroon to work with.
But in my opinion, despite all this, Cameron played safe. With the amount of money and talent backing this project, it is not clear why they did it. And yet that may have been the exact reason for treading the all too familiar path.A ton of elements in the narrative were borrowed from other successful predecessors. The visuals of people trying to escape a drowning boat had them shared with the sequences of Titanic. Outcast and misunderstood sea creature was featured in Netflix’s the Sea Beast (2022). And since Avatar 2 was 12 years in the making, I wouldn’t know which one inspired the other. Learning to ride the Skimwing (sea animal) was a rehash from learning to ride the banshee in the first installment. Extracting the precious liquid from the whales’ head was like a chapter out of Moby Dick. Between two sons one obedient and another troublemaker, the obedient one getting killed leaving the legacy of the family in the unruly hands is not novel in any sense. The hosts’ daughter helps the refugees acclimatize while a hostile son finds pleasure in troubling them is also not an inventive thread either.
In Avatar 1 there was a clear fight between good and evil. But in Avatar 2, the evil has grey shades and they do have a chance to redeem themselves. This makes the victories and defeats more of a lesson in a journey than a destination. Naming of the precious element as Unobtanium was a little cringe-worthy in Avatar 1. In Avatar 2, the precious material extracted from the whale like Tulkun is named Amrita and more of a face-saver.
I read some reviews which refer to the sequel as nothing more than an expensive screensaver. This is very disheartening for the makers who have put years of effort behind this venture. I can see the visual extravaganza and perfection achieved. But there is a lot more going on worth our appreciation and attention.
Some unanswered questions like how did Dr Grace (Sigourney weaver) gives birth, why humans are not able to find a less hostile planet to colonize, why does Kiri have powers over Pandora’s natural life etc may be good to keep the attention alive for a sequel but also prevent us from feeling fulfilled at the end of over 3 hours.
Background score of Avatar 1 was something which stayed on in my mind and helped with the goosebumps in the action sequences. The music of Avatar 2 though was not as compelling.
David Cameroon was known for Alien, Titanic and Abyss before the Avatar franchise. But with reportedly 3 more sequels due for Avatar, it is supposed to take up the rest of his active career. And this will become his main legacy, something that is deeply constrained by technology and budget. Though a lot of pressure, it is something the pioneers thrive on. Avatar 1 made a box office collection of 2.9 billion with a budget of 237 million. Avatar 2 has a very similar budge of 250 million and has already crossed 1 billion at the box office by end of the year 2022.
Cameron is holding up a mirror to his audience on how humans hunt and exhaust one precious natural resource after another, colonize at breakneck speed and have learned nothing from their past on earth. His environmental consciousness is more showing here than in the earlier chapter.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio on the other hand is a much personal experience as narrated by a cricket. It talks about how carpenter Gepetto loses his son Carlo in a war bombing. The sad father starts making a puppet in the image of his boy. A fairy takes pity on him and give life to the puppet. Pinocchio turns out to be nothing like Carlo. The narrative is set in Mussolini’s Italy and in no time, Pinocchio gets on the wrong side of the fascist leader of his town. The bit where he performs for Mussolini is a way of getting back at fascism. Pinocchio signs a contract with a Puppeteer and loses his freedom. There are adventures involving a giant sea beast after which he is given a chance to save his fathers life. Pinocchio who never ages, lives with his father, cricket and Sprezzatura the monkey till they all pass away.
It is no coincidence that ‘The Fairy’ in Pinocchio has similarities with ‘The Faun’ from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. And to set the narrative in Mussolini’s Italy is yet another of the directors’ penchants of bringing fantasy and history together. Fairy tales have been reinvented to stand the test of time and suit the commercial and social needs. The original Pinocchio written by Carlo Collodi in 1883 was about a narcissist and anti-social puppet. It had a dark ending. But when Disney entered in 1940, the ending could not have been dark. All adventures lead to Pinocchio saving the day but getting killed in the process. But is converted into a human boy by the fairy for being brave, truthful and unselfish. When Guillermo Del Toro picks it up in 2022, he keeps the story more or less the same, but adds World War II, magical creatures and stop motion capture.
Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson has given us a true piece of art here. The physical attributes of characters especially Gepetto are very detailed which is enhanced by the delicate nature of stop motion capture and the beautiful lighting. Besides Pinocchio and Gepetto, I enjoyed the characterizations of Count Volpe and Sprezzatura the monkey. The character of cricket for me was not well embedded into the script as besides being the conscience it is also expected to bring on the laughs. Rest of the cast are oblivious to it which takes away the impact had it been included in the give and take. It could have been like Donkey from Shrek or King Julien from Madagascar but he looked more like ghost of Malcolm Crowe from ‘The Sixth Sense’. Even with a lot of tears, some more emotional connection was needed for the visuals to be effective. A lonely Pinocchio making his way through the streets without anyone in sight was emotionally bland and I had struggle to empathize with the character. In my opinion, it may be one of the limitations of stop motion capture. The artistic value may have been way different had Guillermo chosen animation or motion picture, but then again, aesthetics would have really taken a beating there.
Sea monster seems to be a theme doing its rounds these past few years. Both have portrayed them well. Theatre release of Avatar 2 and OTT release of Pinocchio made perfect sense. In this new world where OTT and theatre coexist, there are many avenues for reaching the audience. A theatrical release gone bad would have a second lease of life on the OTT platforms. Pinocchio with a smaller budget of 150 million would be appreciated better at homes than in theatres as the bias has already been established in the last few years.
In writing this review I tried to put technology to the test. Many artists are protesting that AI will destroy their livelihood. I asked chat GPT if it can write a review for Avatar 2. The first response was that the movie will be released only in 2023, but when I mentioned that it has already been released on 15 Dec, the response was that it only had the data till 2021 and cannot comment on releases after that. The reviewers may be safe for now. But even if it could, I would like to find out how it can capture the personal experience and observations of a viewer.
Pinocchio is where an artist gives his all and creates something with a lot of passion. Avatar the way of water has a lot riding on what technology is available and how much money will the movie bring and if it does, the commercial viability of travelling further into the heart of Pandora open up. My sensibilities and not entirely because of the Golden Globe, make me side with Pinocchio and yet I do not regret the time spend behind the 3D glasses immersed in the wonders of another planet.