Although there has been a number of comparisons done recently between ‘Avatar’ (2009) and ‘FernGully’ (1992) (also ‘Pocahontas’ (1995) and ‘Dances with Wolves’ (1990)), I, nevertheless, have decided to take my own turn on the topic and ascertain the similarities between the two movies. In this piece, I will provide some evidence that demonstrate that ‘Avatar’ and ‘FernGully’ are so similar – both in plot lines and style (more so than many other films/stories), that, in my opinion, it was nearly impossible (for James Cameron) not to have in mind ‘FernGully’ when writing ‘Avatar’.
In this review I will assume that the reader has already seen both ‘Avatar’ and ‘FernGully’. The similarities between the two films are striking and are as follows:
Environmental/Colonialism theme – Both films emphasize nature being beautiful and orderly, to be protected, cared for and “listened to”, and human activities and technology being evil. Both films also involve the clash of two different “cultures”, with one race/culture oppressing the other, trying to invade its world – planet Pandora’s tribe vs humans in ‘Avatar’; and fairies vs humans in ‘FernGully’.
The place – FernGully, the last rainforest of ‘FernGully’ can be compared to the planet Pandora. As is Pandora, FernGully is a beautiful “paradise-like” place, previously untouched by humans. The population of this place lives in peace with nature. The fauna and flora in both films are also similar – beautiful green plants and many animals.
Sanctity of nature – In both films forest is regarded as being almost a holy place, populated by invisible “spirits” of nature, which are also responsible for carrying the energy around.
The arrival of the main character – from another “world”; the main character is a human and a male – It is clear that Zak from ‘FernGully’, a human, can be “equated” with ‘Avatar’s character Jake Sully. In fact, the character basis is the same here. Both Zak and Jake can be described as funny, “not-too-serious” kind of guys, who are very much “down-to-earth” and adventurous; both of them are viewed as “child-like” by their love interests. Both Zak and Jake also work for “evil” people who are on the side of technology. Zak and Jake are “recruited” by them to harm, or take advantage of, the beautiful world of nature.
Recognition by folks from another “world” that the protagonist is not like others of his kind – Both Zak in ‘FernGully’ and Jake in ‘Avatar’ appear to have a “big” heart and are willing to learn the secrets of nature.
The enemy is essentially a human in both films – Although Hexxus, the spirit of destruction and death, can be regarded as the “main” enemy in ‘FernGully’, it is humans who set Hexxus free and promote his evil aim. The source of evil also seems human technology in both films. Hexxus could as well be “equated” with Tim Curry in ‘Avatar’. Materialistic gain is primarily what motivates the “evil” in both films: in ‘Avatar’ it is valuable stones, in ‘FernGully’ is it wood/space.
The main heroine of the story saves the life of the protagonist. She protects and defends him in front of her “tribe”. She later befriends the main character and puts a lot of trust in him, hoping that he will do something about the upcoming destruction of her world by “his” people – In ‘Avatar’ the beautiful heroine is Neytiri, the daughter of the leader Omaticaya, the Na’vi clan. In ‘FernGully’, she is clearly Crysta, a fairy girl of FernGully.
The protagonist acquires “first-hand” knowledge of the other “world” – Both Zak and Jake are taught some of the basic principles and laws of the nature world. They are introduced to the skill of “feeling” and “hearing” the beautiful environment around them.
The protagonist falls in love with the “princess” of a tribe – In both ‘Avatar’ and ‘FernGully’ the romantic relationship is formed between the protagonist and the main heroine.
The protagonist undergoes personal change – Clearly, both Jake and Zak change their points of view regarding the nature world. They become “enlightened”, and, in some way, start to associate themselves with the world of nature.
The protagonist lies to his love interest regarding the imminent danger to her tribe, resulting in her being “cross with him”. Jake in ‘Avatar’ does not tell the real reason to Neytiri as to why he is on the planet. He is also initially silent on the topic that his people are planning to invade it. In ‘FernGully’ Zak lies to Crysta, telling her that he has nothing to do with the terrible machines which destroy the forest.
The protagonist “turns away” from his “roots” and fights against the ideas of his own people (tribal unity against the common enemy) – In ‘Avatar’ Jake sides with Na’vi and is eventually involved in the war against humans. In ‘FernGully’ Zak unites with fairies to fight Hexxus.
Nature wins and humanity loses the battle
The father – In ‘Avatar’, Neytiri’s father is the leader of the clan of Na’vi. In ‘FernGully’ Crysta’s father appears to be an important man among other fairies, with Crysta being very popular.
The main heroine’s friend – Crysta’s closest friend in ‘FernGully’, Pips, is almost like a Neytiri’s fiancée Tsu’tey in ‘Avatar’. Both of them become increasingly jealous of the main heroine’s growing interest in the “foreigner”, and there is a rivalry developed. At the end of the film Pips and Tsu’tey seem to accept the protagonist and they even become friends.
Motherly figure/Mentor – In ‘Avatar’ Dr Grace Augustine is an expert on Na’vi. She wrote books on Na’vi and set up a school for them. She mentors Jake Sully. In ‘FernGully’ this mentor of the main heroine is Magi, a much older fairy who acts as a teacher to young Crysta. Interestingly, both Grace and Magi “die” as a result of their involvement to save the nature from destruction.
The Tree – for Na’vi and fairies trees are very important, but they consider one tree to be of particular importance – the holy tree (‘Avatar’), or the home tree (‘FernGully’). Both of these trees are what the “evil” in the respective films targets as the very “heart” of the tribe to be destroyed. Both trees in the films become the last refuge of the tribe.
Some scenes in ‘Avatar’ and ‘FernGully’ are remarkably similar, for example, as other critics also noted, Crysta and Zak’s jumping in puddles which then “light up” upon touch is similar to Neytiri and Jake’s running through plants that also “light up” upon touch. The bulldozer scenes are also remarkably similar and that technology seems to be prominent in both films.
Interestingly, ‘Avatar’ is also similar to ‘Noon Universe’ books of 1960s written by Russian brothers Strugatsky. The Planet Pandora of ‘Noon Universe’ series is a holiday resort planet, covered with jungle where young people just love to hunt. The planet Pandora in ‘Noon Universe’ is populated by indigenous Navi people.
White Avatar took much of the “nature” plot lines from ‘FernGully’, it is clear that the “human” world in ‘Avatar’ is based on the book ‘Call Me Joe’ (1957) written by Poul Anderson. ‘Call Me Joe’ plot revolves around a man, Anglesey, who connects telepathically with an artificially created life form in order to explore the harsh environment of Jupiter. Anglesey fights predators on Jupiter and gradually becomes native.
James Cameron claims to have written the story to ‘Avatar’ in 1995 and ‘FernGully’ was released just 3 years before that, in 1992. It is not impossible that Cameron awaited the moment when ‘FernGully’ becomes a long-forgotten children’s cartoon to make his own “break” and tell the story anew, but now using the stunning visionary. Clever? Only as far as the 3D technologies go, for there is very little originality here.
Overall, given the sheer number of similarities between ‘Avatar’ and ‘FernGully, it is very hard to believe that Cameron simply “borrowed” something from the film, and this does look like an outright plagiarism. Cameron may have “borrowed” from ‘Dances with Wolves’, ‘Pocahontas’ and Poul Anderson’s 1957 short story ‘Call me Joe’, but he essentially “stole” the very essence of ‘FernGully’. Moreover, although Cameron acknowledged the influence of many films and books on ‘Avatar’, including ‘The Emerald Forest’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’, he is more silent when it comes to the main film in question – ‘FernGully’.
And here is some bonus material:
Curious? These are 1970s artworks of a very talented artist, Roger Dean. Not surprisingly, Cameron forgot to mention any influence of Dean on his film.