How Monsters Inc.'s Mike Wazowski Helped Create Payakan The Space Whale In Avatar: The Way Of Water

"Avatar" fans spent 13 years hearing naysayers doubting the existence of "Avatar: The Way of Water," its chances of actually getting finished and released, and even the film's chances of making its money back — this last bit particularly from big doubter Mr. James Cameron, who called the film "the worst business case in movie history." But now, the film is finally out, and it is a monumental success, getting rather good reviews and making huge amounts of money — even if Cameron doesn't think it is all about the money

What other movie has a giant blue alien wearing Oakleys? Or a whale literally ripping the arm off a whaler? This is a grand, epic blockbuster, one where James Cameron essentially remakes the end of "Titanic" and a movie where the hero and the villain take a little breather in the middle of their climactic fight to check on each other before carrying on.

Then, there's Payakan, without a doubt the highlight of the film. The young tulkun is one of the most complex, likable, and badass characters in the entire film, which is essentially one giant ad for saving the whales and the oceans. It makes sense that the movie would focus so much on this, as it put James Cameron's decades-long passion for the oceans and conservationism to use.

The tulkun are highly intelligent creatures with their own history of violence, their own society, and rules. It turns out, however, that such magnificent creatures required equally magnificent inspiration — Mike Wazowski.

'Put that thing back where it came from or so help me!'

You remember Mike Wazowski, right? The giant sentient eyeball with little arms and legs voiced by Billy Crystal who works at Monsters Inc. (of "Monsters Inc." fame), helped caused a lot of destruction in the city and was involved in the company going bankrupt after a huge scandal before saving the company by pivoting to a laugh factory. 

Wait, what does funnyman monster Michael Wazowski from the big city have to do with the space whale from the multi-million-dollar "Avatar: The Way of Water"? you might ask. Well, a lot, it turns out. 

In the April 2023 issue of Empire, production designer Dylan Cole talked about how the design team found a way to make Payakan a relatable character by using ... Mike Wazowski as a reference. "It started as a joke, but it's 100 percent the same problem: how much can you express with just an eye."

And yet, joke or not, it sort of makes sense. As concept artist Constantine Sekeris said, "you read Payakan through [that one big eye]." This is the key to the character. Payakan cannot talk (except through subtitles), but he expresses so much through the one big eye that sees Lo'ak. Within minutes, he is a wonderful addition to the movie, one that matches Lo'ak's energy and his frustration with the adults of the clan, and his desire to fight injustice.

The film's MVP

"The Way of Water" is a giant movie, one with many characters and moving parts. It introduces new environments, concepts, and cultures while also serving as a family saga that will carry onto the other sequels. And yet, somehow, the film managed to dedicate enough time to this space whale to grow into the unexpected star of this film (and apparently the next one!).

Indeed, the "Payakan-mania" has been kind of surreal for the designers, according to Empire. "You never know how these things will land," Cole said. "On paper, [the tulkun] could sound silly, but once the characters are invested in Payakan, the viewer is, too. You're along for the ride with him." He also confirmed what we all wanted to hear, that "Avatar 3" is going to be "exploring the whole tulkun culture and their hierarchies." Get ready for "Avatar: Whale Wars," because I know I am.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" is still in theaters, making lots and lots of money.