Granted, there's a reason movies on this scale rarely put a kid in the lead: Child actors are to films what E. coli is to spinach. But there's also a reason Dakota Fanning has consistently gotten work since she was six years old, and it's that she was a pretty damn good actor even as a kid. She could have carried this thing.
In Avatar, Neytiri (The Na'vi Love Interest) Should Have Been The Star
Here's a fun game: Without looking it up, what is the name of the main character in James Cameron's Avatar, i.e. the highest-grossing film of all time? If you guessed "Jack Sullivan," sure, that sounds about right.
The only reason this guy is the lead is so that the audience can have the point of view of a white dude taking us into the world of Pandora and the Na'vi. Sullivan is part of Earth's military, there to learn more about the alien race, eventually earning their trust so that the humans can extract MacGuffin-tanium from the Hometree. As Sullivan spends time with the Na'vi, he begins to sympathize with them (that is, he falls in love with one of them -- Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana). He regrets his actions once the humans launch an assault on the natives, and joins the fight against the humans.
Say what you will about the plot of Avatar (which is built almost entirely out of plot points from similar movies), but James Cameron actually spent a lot of time and effort on world-building. He even went so far as creating an entire working language for the Na'vi, who of course are ultimately the protagonists. But you know what would have been an even better storytelling challenge? Actually telling the story from the aliens' point of view from the start, while still getting the audience onboard.
If we just make Neytiri the protagonist and pick up the story with her, the audience could get a better sense of what life of Pandora is like before and after human colonization. Then she can meet Jack and make the decision to allow him into her tribe. Her mistake leads to the attack on her people, and she comes to terms with the realization that the colonizers are not to be trusted. Sure, we can still get the guy's change of heart and he can still help them overcome the humans, but instead of being the white savior, he's just a means to an end for the hero, Neytiri.
Now you have the thing this movie was probably always trying to be, a clever twist on the alien invasion genre in which humans are the invaders and the world being threatened with extinction is someone else's. The difference is that it's not some dude whose choices save the day -- the outcome rests in the hands of the natives, i.e. the people who actually have something to lose. Who knows, maybe one of the dozens of planned sequels will eventually get there.
Mike Bedard has a Twitter account if you're prone to following people on there.
Write some better female leads with a beginner's guide to Celtx.
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