Avatar: The Way of Water audiences grew incredibly fond of the tulkun, which is precisely why one producer defends the decision to keep one upsetting scene.
Director James Cameron and Disney anticipated the appeal of the marine animals, specifically Payakan, and went so far as to give him a Lego set. But, of course, it also helped that Avatar 2 went out of its way to give these creatures a culture and a familial connection to the Metkayina and other characters.
The bond between Kate Winslet's Ronal and a mother tulkun, Roa, was the linchpin to one of the film's most devastating sequences since it draws heavy parallels to our world.
One producer, in particular, was happy that audiences were upset by the sequence.
Avatar 2's Tulkun Hunt Is Upsetting for a Reason
In an interview with The Wrap, Avatar: The Way of Water producer Jon Landau was asked why the tulkun hunting sequence was cut down from its initial length and if it was due to being too much for audiences.
Landau didn't address whether it was "too much" for some viewers but that it was for the sake of being more "succinct" with its action. He said that during the "first cut of the Tulkun hunt, we saw opportunities to make it more streamlined" but did so without losing "the emotional quality" of the sequence:
"One of the things that we found on the 'Avatar' films in general is that action that tells a story and a succinct is the most effective kind of action. And as we were looking at a first cut of the Tulkun hunt, we saw opportunities to make it more streamlined without sacrificing the adventure of it or the emotional quality at the end."
The interviewer asked again if people were too upset by the hunting of the alien marine life with Landau responding that "it's meant to be upsetting." Landau said that one mistake filmmakers make is to "react wrongly" to negative feedback for certain scenes.
After all, as Landau put it, audiences didn't react negatively to Jack's death scene in Titanic because it was a bad scene but because it made them sad. The same with the tulkun hunting sequence, which "people were not supposed to like:"
"It’s meant to be upsetting. I think one of the things that sometimes filmmakers react wrongly to is when they get a negative, we don’t like Jack’s death scene in Titanic. It doesn’t mean the scene’s not working. The Tulkun hunt was something that people were not supposed to like. Where people were going to say, 'that was awful, why’d they have to do that.' That’s OK to ask those questions. The scene is intended to do that."
Moving away from dead space whales, Landau was asked about the breakout character of Payakan and whether he or the crew expected the exiled tulkun to connect with so many people.
Landau said that he "always viewed Payakan a little bit like Lassie" and that it was indeed unusual for him to see Payakan "always" listed among favorite characters from audiences:
"I always viewed Payakan a little bit like Lassie. And I would say this is a story like a boy and his dog, and they’re both outcasts and they need each other. And I thought that Payakan was going to be a character as you describe them. People wouldn’t see that at first. And we had to keep saying Payakan is a character. And when we would ask people about characters, Payakan was always on that list and included them, which was unusual."
Landau also confirmed that "Payakan will be back" for the untitled Avatar 3.
It's likely Jon Landau is answering these questions from the perspective of early test screenings for Avatar 2, especially concerning the question about Payakan. Typically, after a test screening, audiences will be given a questionnaire with one of the questions asking about their favorite character(s).
Interpreting what Landau said in this interview, it seemed they had to clarify to early audiences that Payakan counted as a character. After they did that, they were surprised at how often Payakan appeared among the audience's favorite characters.
As for the tulkun hunting sequence and the audience's adverse reaction to it, there's nuance to it, as Landau said, when looking over those kinds of responses. The previously mentioned questionnaires typically ask audiences what they did not like in the movie.
Hypothetically, one person could have written down something like "I didn't like the space whales being killed" with no further context, so the producers and crew of The Way of Water have to figure out the why. However, just like the recent fan screening of the film, these early audiences likely participated in open questions with producers.
Fans should expect to see more of the aquatic aliens when Avatar 3 is released in theaters on December 20, 2024.
Avatar: The Way of Water is still playing in theaters with no signs pointing to when it will begin streaming on Disney+.