Avatar has hogged the limelight on the back of its grand international success and record revenues. While the film deserves appreciation on these counts, it is not a pioneer in promoting the environment conservation theme. That recognition will have to go to the underrated classic FernGully, which set a benchmark for feature-length animation.
The achievement of FernGully is not only pertaining to its epic grand narrative, but also with respect to its technical nous. In 1992, at a time when full-length animated feature films were taking uncertain first steps, FernGully was a bold creation that set a benchmark for narrative scale. Indeed, everything about the setting of the film is larger-than-life. From the elaborately designed rainforests of FernGully or constructing the nightmarish ecological conditions in Mount Warning, the flaura, fauna and geography are richly imaginative.
The theme of environmental sustainability runs through both the films in question. In Avatar we get a clear picture of the conflict between human needs and environmental protection. In their quest for the rare but highly cherished mineral Unobtainium, the human missionaries to Pandora undermine its ecological balance. The native inhabitants Na’vis, on the other hand, display customs and practices of worshipping the environment. Theirs is a culture that is shaped upon the wisdom of the ages. Though in some ways the humanoid species that is the Na’vis is shown to be barbaric and under-evolved, their sense of civic duty and communal harmony is inferior to none. On the contrary, one can claim that their heightened respect for the environment betrays a wisdom lacking in humans. This assessment is certainly attested by our species’ abysmal record in accelerating global warming. Moreover, humans have let themselves down through rampant deforestation of lush forests and natural resources. This is a theme at the center of both Avatar and FernGully.
The two films are united by their suspicious view of human motives. In FernGully, for example, humans were believed to be extinct due to toxic consumption. This can be construed as a veiled criticism of the mindless consumer culture that has pervaded our societies of late. The phenomenon of deforestation is shown to happen in the secret inner world of Mount Warning. In Avatar, too, we see how our species is set to exploit the resources of other heavenly bodies, with little scruples on the repercussion of such actions. For example, the human missionaries in Pandora show no hesitation in using violent, destructive means to fulfill their narrow material goals.
But what is also common to both films is how there are some heroic humans among the multitude of the selfish. In Avatar, the character of Jake Sully qualifies as heroic. Jake, who treads the twin world of humans and Na’vi with élan, carries with him a strong moral conviction. It is for this reason that he is able to fight for a just cause irrespective of his fluid personal identity. In FernGully, it is Zak who proves to be a hero, though in the beginning of the story he is more comical than heroic. Indeed, it is upon Zak’s disclosure of how humans are destroying FernGully that the fairies decide to counter the phenomenon. In many ways the evil spirit of Hexxus is simply a metaphor for all that is evil in humans.