How Pandora The World of Avatar Reflects the Film

There is no denying that the movie Avatar was once a great cultural event. In late 2009, director James Cameron’s blockbuster about blue-skinned aliens was seemingly all anyone could talk about, even though it was arguably not even the best science fiction film that year (to be sure, the landscape was crowded, with District 9, Star Trek, and Moon all jockeying to be the sci-fi inclusions on people’s Top Ten lists.)

Critics hailed Avatar as a singularly immersive theatergoing experience, and audiences agreed, insofar as they helped it unseat Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, to become the highest grossing film of all time. Even when adjusted for inflation, it still ranks as the second highest grosser, right behind the classic Gone with the Wind.

Yet as many have noted, in the intervening years since Avatar set off the big wave of post-converted 3-D films, it seemed to vanish from the cultural conversation. Back in 2014, on the fifth anniversary of the film’s release, Scott Mendolson of Forbes.com posted an article examining the film’s legacy. The headline of that article asserted that Avatar had “left no pop culture footprint.” And indeed, the film’s cultural relevance, or lack thereof, is something the voices on our own /Filmcast have continued to debate.

As of this summer, however, Avatar the experience (emphasis on “experience” over the film’s middling story) has suddenly become relevant again. All it took was the opening of a certain theme park land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

Let’s take a closer look at Pandora – The World of Avatar, how it fits in with Animal Kingdom, and how it brings aspects of Cameron’s film to life in a way that just might make a believer out of you, even if you are not an Avatar fan.

003_Tree_of_Life

Even before setting foot in Pandora – The World of Avatar, the sight of the Tree of Life, Animal Kingdom’s central landmark, might serve as a faint visual callback to one of the elements from Cameron’s film: namely, the towering Hometree, which served as the habitat for the Na’vi until a fleet of gunships brought it down. If you hang a left at the Tree of Life, and follow the signs, you will eventually cross a bridge and find yourself entering the Valley of Mo’ara on Pandora.

004_Valley_of_Mo'ara

A glimpse at the guidemap for Animal Kingdom reveals two rides, two restaurants, and one gift shop in Pandora.

002_Animal_Kingdom_Guidemap_Custom

From here on out, we will move through the land, spot by spot, taking a look at each of those places, as well as a few other key geographical features that are not given a map description.

Floating Mountains

Floating Mountains

In Avatar, there is a funny scene where a character named Norm professes open excitement about visiting “the Hallelujah Mountains,” only to look and see no visible reaction from the main character, Jake Sully (remember him?) That scene is a microcosm for how many people would probably feel about the prospect of visiting Pandora. Which is to say, they would probably stare blankly at you as you scoffed, “The legendary floating mountains of Pandora? Heard of those?”

Yet even for an avowed non-fan of Avatar the movie, the sheer massive scale of the floating mountains almost single-handedly justifies visiting the World of Avatar. As you walk up on them, the juxtaposition of these huge green-speckled rocks with waterfalls cascading over the side and people streaming under them like ants is a real wonder to behold.

That, in a nutshell, is what makes Pandora – The World of Avatar such a perfect extension of the movie. In a way, Avatar was already more of a theme park ride than a movie. Once the ride left theaters, you could never truly relive it…until now. Watching the film at home, even on a big-screen TV, is just not the same. If anything, it would only lay bare the film’s deficiencies as a piece of storytelling. What the theme park land does is restore the lost spectacle, the missing element of interactivity, to the Avatar experience.

So yes, the floating mountains are gosh-wow terrific. Hallelujah, indeed. You can see them looming large over Pandora from just about anywhere in the land; the two best vantage points are probably the southeast quadrant, or the viewing ridge just off to the right when you first walk in.

Disney made the smartest choice it could have with this land by setting the backstory “over a generation” after the events of Cameron’s film. In doing so, it has effectively downplayed the film’s weakest aspects — specifically, its characters and threadbare story — in favor of a more standalone experience that plays to the movie’s strengths.

Avatar’s greatest asset was always its world-building, the photo-realistic backdrop of the exoplanetary moon Pandora. This is understandable, since the whole reason the movie was considered such a technological leap forward at the time is because Cameron had utilized a new virtual camera system whereby he was able to create a digital environment as he was filming. This allowed him to view how his actors interacted with the environment every step of the way.

As a result, the moon of the film became a place of exotic beauty that looked and felt like an authentic, mist-shrouded rainforest in a National Geographic special. Only now, that place, with all its painterly background flourishes like the floating mountains, is also a physical construct that you can visit in the real world. Once again, the audience has become an active participant, invited into Avatar by way of immersion.

Flora and Fauna

Flora and Fauna

Before we take a look at the two rides in Pandora – The World of Avatar, it is worth remarking on some of the otherworldly plant life. Back at the Valley of Mo’ara sign, when you first walk in, you will see a large specimen called a flaska reclinata. This plant is said to be the last of its kind, however touching its pink belly makes it emit spores (in actuality, just steam) to reseed itself across the moon.

This is but one small detail that helps Pandora fit in with the overall theme of conservationism at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Throughout the land, there are many other exotic specimens: the so-called “vein pods,” for instance, almost look like the eggs carrying facehuggers in Cameron’s Aliens.

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Flight of Passage

Avatar: Flight of Passage is the newest E-ticket ride at Walt Disney World, meaning it utilizes some of the most advanced technology and is one of the most popular new attractions at the resort. Since I was there on a busy Saturday, and it’s still the opening summer, the ride had a standby wait of 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours all day long.

Luckily, this writer was able to secure a Fastpass online before showing up at the park. The only downside to jumping the line is that there are certain things you can only see in the standby queue, such as the lab where one of the blue avatars floats in an amnio tank. Back in May, our own Peter Sciretta shared some videos from Inside the Magic that show that part of the experience, and a whole lot more. You can check out his coverage here.

As Peter noted, Flight of Passage is set within an abandoned RDA (Resources Development Administration) facility. RDA was the corporate entity that served as the main antagonistic force in Cameron’s film. Since it was driven off-world at the end of the film, there are several abandoned RDA facilities scattered throughout the World of Avatar. In the backstory, this one has been taken over by Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE), an “interplanetary adventure travel” agency, which seeks to connect guests with nature on Pandora.

At the entrance to Flight of Passage, there is no big sign trumpeting the attraction’s name. Instead, if you look up, you will see a handwoven hanging decoration, depicting a mountain banshee, one of the flying creatures that the Na’vi can interface with via a neural connection.

To reach the ride, you hike up into a mountain cave whose mouth also yields an impressive view of the floating mountains. Once inside, you move past cave paintings and twist through a few old access tunnels, until you reach a room with a video screen where a scientist debriefs you on how you will be “genetically matched and linked” to your own avatar, so you can ride on the back of a mountain banshee. This not only lets eco-tourists experience an important Na’vi rite of passage; it also helps the Pandora Conservation Initiative study a “keystone species” in the moon’s recovering ecosystem.

Again, back in May, our own Hoai-Tran Bui shared some embedded footage of the ride experience. Suffice it to say, guests board a contraption like a futuristic stationary bike and soon find themselves soaring through a simulation, with lush imagery provided by Weta Digital, the visual effects company that came to fame with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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Na’vi River Journey

Like Flight of Passage, this attraction boasts no big sign, but rather, a handwoven decoration at the entrance, which helps to reinforce the motif of all-natural materials. In this case, the decoration depicts the Na’vi Shaman of Songs.

Inside Na’vi River Journey, guests board a boat for a slow ride through a bioluminescent rainforest. Sadly, creatures like the Viperwolf are depicted by video screen only: part of a growing trend at Disney World of dark rides that effectively whisk you past TV monitors. At the end, this particular ride does pay off, however, as your boat encounters an animatronic of the Shaman of Songs, who sits among glowing plants, singing and moving her arms with a fluidity that is almost beyond belief for a theme park robot.

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