On FernGully, Avatar, and Princess Mononoke: Why they are arguably the same movie (aka my favorite movie)

Someone once told me there are only so many “different” stories re-told in film; and really, the list of central themes seems to be capped at ten. From these ten story lines, we receive more than 600 feature films each year in the United States alone (610 in 2011, to be exact). Some of those themes are so common that we barely bat an eye when we see them repeated (think good v. evil, love conquers all, triumph over adversity, individual v. society…). Some, however, are told  somewhat less frequently, and when a story seems too similar, the viewers apparently get annoyed. This was the case when James Cameron’s film, Avatar, was released in 2009. If you saw the film, you either loved it or you hated it, but I think the general consensus was positive. The critics went crazy; those who opposed the film offered criticism with frustration over its repeated theme. At first, Avatar was compared to the story of Pocahontas, which was reasonable, but not until the similarities were drawn between it and the 1992 animated children’s movie, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, did the arguments really hit the nail on the head.

As a kid, FernGully was one of my favorite movies (along with another movie with a similar environmental agenda, Once Upon a Forest. But if you don’t remember FernGully, I doubt you’ll remember this one). While I watched Avatar, I recognized the similarities, but it didn’t frustrate me as much as it seemed to have frustrated others. As I see it, regardless of whether or not the two films have “identical” plots, there’s no doubt the message is a powerful one. Going on, an article on Script Lab defended the film industry by declaring, “It’s not the story itself, but the way the story is told that makes a movie great.” To be honest, I was just pleased to see this less common theme explored in a hugely successful film. Better yet, not only was it a major Hollywood film, aimed at an older audience, but it now holds the spot for highest worldwide grossing movie– earning $2.78 Billion overall- just above Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, which earned $2.19 Billion (James Cameron has an uncanny skill).

But getting back to the point; FernGully and Avatar aren’t the only movies which have explored this environmental theme, nor was Disney’s Pocahontas (also part of the list, I should probably include Dances with Wolves among many others). This story- as one Yahoo! article summarizes it: “a would-be tree-chopper discovers the hidden beauty of an environmental treasure and changes his mind about its destruction” – is actually, in my humble opinion, one of the most enjoyable, and the movies which retell it tend to rank high on my list of favorites.

I have never actually been able to compose a list of my favorite films but if I could, the list would certainly include the following 3 movies:

  1. Princess Mononoke
  2. Avatar
  3. FernGully: The Last Rainforest (actually, today, this might not top my list; as a kid, however, this film was without doubt ranked number 1)

Princess Mononoke, a Studio Ghibli (artist Hayao Miyazaki) animated film, tells the story of a village prince, Ashitaka, leaves his village to save his people, and avenge the death of the demon that cursed him (no, you read that right- avenge….not revenge- this is a monumental message in itself!). He seeks out the Forest Spirit for help, but in his journey encounters “Iron Town,” a nearby village which had effectively clear-cut the neighboring mountainsides and killed and corrupted the remaining species while developing violent technologies (firearms) which would further their mission of controlling nature. Ashitaka learns that the leader of Iron Town is also on a mission to kill the very same Forest Spirit which he is in search of- hoping its death will grant them wealth and power. The movie ends (spoilers) with Ashitaka saving the Forest Spirit (and thus the entire forest) while teaching the people of Iron Town the importance of respecting the nature around them. I cannot describe how much I love this movie. If it gives any indication, I am getting a tattoo of the Forest Spirit in a few hours, right next to a tattoo I currently have of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s other forest spirit creations: Totoro.

Sketch of Mononoke's Shishigami (Forest Spirit)

Sketch of Mononoke’s Shishigami (Forest Spirit)

The film follows an extremely obvious environmentalism/colonialism theme. Only slightly different is the story in FernGully.

The IMDB profile for FernGully describes the story as follows:

The magical inhabitants of a rainforest called FernGully fight to save their home that is threatened by logging and a polluting force of destruction called Hexxus.

That about sums it up. Now, what if we change just a few key words, 5 in all:

The Na’vi, magical inhabitants of a moon called Pandora, fight to save their home that is threatened by mining and a polluting force of destruction called Humans.

Well that sounds like Avatar! Okay, I’m also pretty sure some specific shots were near mirrors of the animations in FernGully; and then, of course, there’s the sappy underlying love story in both. But I don’t care! The point is, these were both great movies that tell the same story, essentially a warning of destruction of the environment. Part of what I really like about both FernGully and Avatar is that the protaganist was ultimately changed to see the opposite of himself. I really don’t think plagiarism is a valid argument (I’m interested to hear what the folks behind FernGully would have to say about this); I mean, Shakespeare doesn’t get his panties all in a bunch when variations of Romeo and Juliet are produced ad nauseum.

In addition to some of the themes I referenced in the first paragraph, there is man v. nature (apparently, there’s a man v. nature theme to almost everything, but I’ll explore the opposite of this theme in another post for Unit 4). All of the films mentioned in this post follow a similar theme, offer a similar cautionary tale, and plot a similar story. The takeaway is the value of the message being delivered.

All I know is that, from these movies, I am left with overwhelming optimism. Why, you ask? Because Nature always wins.

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