Updated at the bottom.
(There are no spoilers below.)
I saw Avatar and quite enjoyed it. Many people have pointed out similarities to Pocahontas, Ferngully and Dances with Wolves. There are also elements of Tarzan and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. I'm sure that some enterprising person will set up a website showing all those references and many more. James Cameron's strong suit isn't originality; what he's best at is taking existing elements, weaving them into a solidly structured screenplay and then kicking it up a notch with his directing ability. Avatar doesn't break new ground from the standpoint of content, but it does deliver that content in a very satisfying manner.
It's basically a fish out of water story combined with a romantic vision of simpler societies. Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan, John Carter and Carson of Venus stories) specialized in stories like this. In Burroughs' case, there was an underlying racism; white men were always destined to rule the natives. There's no racism in Cameron's point of view in Avatar (though there is in many of the characters'), but there's still the arrogant conceit that allows the hero to admire a foreign society and then rise to the top of it. Heaven forbid that the hero could admire another society but fail to dominate it, which is much truer to the immigrant experience.
Cameron adds a strong criticism of capitalist exploitation to the mix, which has apparently raised the ire of the Fox News folks. However, given the current economy, people who have seen their jobs downsized or outsourced, who can't afford health care and who have walked away from their mortgages don't need a movie to tell them that capitalism can be brutal. In this regard, Avatar has a lot in common with Up in the Air, a low-tech film that is built around laying people off. Fox News can complain all it wants, but Hollywood follows the zeitgeist, not the other way around. And the final irony is that while one division of Fox is condemning the film, Fox itself produced it, which proves that Rupert Murdoch is only concerned with profit, not ideology.
Avatar crystallized something for me that I should have realized years ago. There has been a lot of discussion of mocap and its relationship to keyframed animation. I now realize that this is a symptom of a larger division within the film industry. When James Cameron or Peter Jackson use mocap, it's for almost-but-not-quite-human creatures that have to share the screen with human actors. The goal is for these characters to be believable within the confines of a film that has a realistic surface.
The schism isn't between mocap and keyframing; it's between realism and caricature. James Cameron's goals are very different than those of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks or Blue Sky. Cameron's use of mocap is an attempt to extend reality. The film wants to fool us into believing what we're seeing is real. The all-cgi features have become more detailed and lush in their visuals, but looking at the characters, it's clear that they aren't real. The character designs prevent the audience from being fooled.
This presents an interesting problem. Caricature has never been taken as seriously as realism. The history of Western art, with the exception of the dark ages and the 20th century, has always been derived from realism, and the art of the dark ages probably had more to do with the loss of knowledge and craft than with a conscious artistic choice. Caricature might be seen as clever, but except for artists, nobody values caricature as more than a lightweight diversion. Disney moved more towards illustration when he went into features. The all-cgi features have pushed their visuals towards greater complexity (which sometimes clashes with their character designs). Video games have also gravitated towards realism. I believe that this has been motivated by a desire to be taken more seriously by getting closer to what Western eyes value in art.
Caricature can be serious. The early Disney features prove it and Pixar hasn't done too badly itself making that point. But there's the gravitational pull towards realism, one proven by Avatar's box office to be satisfying to audiences. The move to stereoscopic 3D is another aspect of that pull towards realism. The challenge for animation is to find the sweet spot between the realism that computers are capable of and caricature, which strips away detail to get to the essence of something. It's not a problem for comedy; if caricature is thought of as lightweight, then it's perfectly suited to getting laughs. But just as all comedians yearn to play Hamlet, all animators yearn to be taken seriously, if not in terms of subject matter then in terms of respect.
As the success of cgi features, with their greater dimensionality and visual complexity, suggested to some that drawn animation was old hat, I wonder if Avatar will suggest that caricature is fit only for children's films and comedy. Should the schism between realism and caricature be narrowed or made wider? I think the executive decisions in the wake of Avatar will have a big impact on the future of keyframing and while I admire the film, I'm afraid that its influence won't be wholly good.
Update: David Brooks has an interesting article in the N.Y. Times, referring to the story formula used in Avatar as the "White Messiah fable."
His entire article can be found here.
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.