As you may have noticed, things have been a bit slow around here lately, which is not necessarily just to blame my laziness. Many sets I have on my list only came out in September and October and some others that have been out already for a while don’t have great availability, which means they sometimes are out of stock and if they are there are sold at high prices. All of that makes it more complicated for me to obtain stuff within my budget constraints and likely that’s going to remain this way for a while. So be apprised that the long gaps between reviews may be here to stay despite my best efforts to make things work. Now on to the article.
We all have those “guilty pleasure” movies, that is films that we know aren’t actually that good, but we keep watching over and over again for a specific reason. One of mine is undeniably Avatar. The reason for this is pretty obvious – as a 3D artist myself I was simply enawed by the sheer amount of hyper-realistic rendered graphics on display, even more so since virtual plant and landscape creation was one of my secret obsessions and I just knew how hard it was to make a leave sway in the wind or some stalks interact with an animal touching them. Combined with the fact that in 2009 a lot of this was still a lot harder to do than it is nowadays and many of the technologies used were in their infancy, how could one not be impressed?
Then there’s the whole other side that triggers my inner film critic – the story is very run-off-the-mill and full of corny stereotypes, terribly written dialog and yes, even those awful names for locales like the Hallelujah Mountains (!) make me cringe. Why am I telling you all that? Naturally, the upcoming sequel movies have caused a bit of a renaissance and brought the original movie back into everyone’s mind and view. They even went so far as to bring back an enhanced version of the original to cinemas. While this seems a bit too much hype for my taste, of course I can’t evade all the buzz. Knowing that The Way of the Water will likely be the same mix of weird and terrible storytelling with eye-popping visuals will not deter from making it a point to watch it, regardless.
All of this is the perfect opportunity for LEGO to bring out a few sets. when I heard about this, I was quite giddy with anticipation, hoping they would bring out the Dragon Assault Ship (that big flying pancake thing), but as it turns out they had other plans. Instead we’re getting a bunch of scenes from the first movies for people to relive their memories. The first two I chose for my review are Neytiri & Thanator vs. AMP Suit Quaritch (75571) and Jake & Neytiri First Banshee Flight (75572).
Pricing and Contents
It seems to be one of those “unwritten rules” that licensed LEGO sets are considerably more expensive than others and this is unfortunately the case here just as well. Combined with the recent arbitrary price hikes they imposed on their costumers under the pretense of the overall situation in the world inflicting economic pressure this makes these sets a rather costly investment. The Thanator set comes in at 45 Euro, which on first glance isn’t all that terrible for 560 pieces. However, as is evident from the overview picture, many pieces are small and the individual models are also not the largest and most complex ones.
The Banshee set fares a lot worse at 55 Euro for 572 pieces. The problem here really is that right out of the gate you know that you’re not getting much for your money’s worth with the Ikrans being super skinny and the wings inevitably gobbling up pieces plus the actual wing “skin” undoubtedly costing a premium since the foil pieces need to be printed and cut specifically just for this set (an observation that applies to similar Ninjago dragon sets as well).
With all that in mind, it’s once more time for retail discounts to save the day and make this work. Lucky for us the original movie has dropped from most people’s memory and at this point the new film isn’t even out, so demand for these sets isn’t that high and there is some wriggle room, so I got the Thanator set for 32 Euro and the one with the Banshees for 37 Euro. If you’re patient and wait for upcoming special promos in the pre-Christmas season or Black Friday in particular, you may be able to get even more discount. On the other hand popularity could grow once the new movie hits and people flock to theaters, so you can’t hesitate too much and have to trust your gut feeling.
A standout feature of these sets are of course the tall minifigures for the Na’vi, the oversized blue smurfs that roam Pandora‘s forests. This is achieved in two ways: One are the very obvious long legs. Instead of having two stud holes they are three holes long and at this scale this makes quite a difference. Those leg pieces are not the same as the one specifically used on Woody from the Toy Story sets a few years ago, by the way, meaning they’re a new mold. The second trick to gain some height are the elongated heads with an actual chin area. Again, a minimal change, but noticeably contributing to the overall perception of those creatures being 2.5 meter tall. This can be easily seen with angry Colonel Quaritch next to Neytiri, both from the Thanator vs. AMP Suit set.
Since the Na’vi are basically butt-naked bar a loin cloth and some of their tribal garbs and trinkets, the whole body is Medium Blue. All the details are printed on, including their blue skin stripes and the aforementioned decorative items. the designs are very nice and each character is immediately recognizable.
The Landscape Pieces
As stated in my lengthy opening paragraph, the landscapes of Pandora play a major part in the appeal of the whole movie. They lend to the credibility and even if in the first movie we only ever get to see sub-tropical regions, there’s already a lot of variation and diversity there which will only expand once we get to know other areas in the new movies. That said, of course re-creating those landscapes in the real world and especially in LEGO is a whole different exercise. Since most plants and creatures were specifically designed for the movie, there are no exact matches for them in our environment.
That can mean that a plant doesn’t exist at all in this form on our planet or that the designers drew inspiration from existing species, but changed their appearance. That can be anything from simply changing the scale (unless you’re into it, very few of us really know how weird some microscopic fungae or small herbs look up close), changing the color or blending features of different plants into a new one. Very experimental genetics, if you will. Apparently this means that LEGO would have to create a ton of new molds and recolored elements and as we all know this would not be realistic or reasonable in terms of manufacturing cost and in turn price. So they had to get creative and look at what they already had and could easily use.
A very obvious candidate are the palm leaf elements. The Magenta ones were in a few The LEGO Movie 2 sets along with the super rare Bright Light Orange variant and I for one am glad that we’re getting them back and from what it seems in notable numbers, given that they appear in more than one of the sets. Regrettably this is also where LEGO stopped being “nice to us” and giving us new colors with most other elements being pulled in from existing sets such as the small leaves in Magenta and Bright Light Orange having appeared in various Disney sets or the Sunflowers (40524). The only highlight other than that for me were the two Dark Red flower stems hidden in the green capsules. Those were only introduced last year in Minecraft and are still relatively rare.
Mind you, I’m not saying that this is bad and the designers didn’t try, it just doesn’t feel very Pandora-ish. A particular beef of mine is that many of the scenes with the Thanator (pictures at the top) for instance play out in the shadow of the forest and at dawn, so everything has slightly bluish tint. This surely could have represented better by using colors like Dark Turquoise, Dark Blue, Sand Green, Sand Blue and so on. Also the overall density of the jungle could have been better with “simply more stuff”. And with that we are also getting to the point of the glow-in-the-dark elements: The crowns (top) and upside-down carrots (below) would make so much more sense in a dark environment.
In the Banshees set there’s also a completely new element. Since it’s not yet listed on Bricklink I can’t provide you with a proper name and description, but it is basically the counterpart to this also rather rarely used support beam, only that instead of a flat surface it is a half-cylinder. Here it is used to create the illusion of a waterfall down the floating rocks and thus included in Trans Light Blue, in other Avatar sets it is used in Trans Clear to similar effect, only without the illusion of water. It’s actually a nice new element and I would predict that especially in the clear color it would also make for a nice support on other models that are being displayed mid-air.
On a final note: As you can see when studying the pictures closely they have clips and “hook” bar elements at their ends. This is meant to allow you to connect the individual pieces into a bigger ensemble. While it’s a nice touch, it doesn’t exactly make sense. The landscapes each have a different feel and appearance down to the color of the “grass” being different greens and there’s no real transition between the zones.
Also the landscape models are not very robust, being that they are only built on a two plate thick base with not much structural reinforcement and the risk of pulling stuff apart is rather high. Did I mention that he bar and clip elements being different colors is also kind of annoying? There’s some good intentions here, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. it would probably have been better to focus more on making each segment as detailed as they possibly could or in the opposite direction harmonize everything so that the individual sections could be plugged together with pins and form a solid piece of landscape.
The Thanator (simply “death bringer” derived from the ancient Greek word thanatos) is one of the first large creatures we get to see in the movie and it also plays a vital role in the grand finale. That latter scene where this creature is turned into an ally is what the set is about. Personally I never found it to be all to terrifying contrary to what the film wants to make you believe, which perhaps is already saying something. To me it’s just not the most interesting beast to begin with.
One of the factors that contributes to this feeling is the decision to have six legs, which makes the movements look awkward. It’s one of those sub-conscious things that you cannot put a finger on at first, but it becomes more and more clear the more you think about it. The second thing is the odd coloration. Yes, it makes sense for a creature that moves through the shadowy underbrush of the forest to have a dark skin to blend in, it’s just not visually attractive. The third and final reason why this fails to impress me is the odd sense of “He’s wearing a mask.” with the leaf-shaped skin appendages and the extremely protruding teeth. Yes, that no doubt is the intention – to create the feeling of the creature wearing a skull mask like a shaman or tribal warrior – it just doesn’t really work for me.
Based on my limited enthusiasm for the actual film creature I wasn’t expecting too much, yet LEGO managed to make things even worse. Just looking at the box art made me go “RLY?”. Everything about Palulukan (as the Na’vi call him) looks wrong and at no point do you believe that this is a slick predator stalking other animals in the jungle. The most obvious shortcoming is of course the extremely blocky appearance. You can see that to some degree the curved appearance of the body was captured, but everything else feels like rigid limbs hanging from a marionette.
The stiffness not only affects the look, but also the play value in that it is nigh on impossible to pose this creature other than the most basic stances. You can forget about that typical attack pose because the trunk doesn’t have a joint and at the same time the leg joints are way to weak to e.g. allow the thing to stand on its hind legs and rear up. In reverse, it is equally difficult to even get all six feet on the ground at the same time. When you manage to get it working it still feels wrong due to the claws just hovering above the actual ground plane due to how they are constructed. This just feels so wrong!
The other thing that rubs me the wrong way is the head. I mean what is the point of creating custom molds, if you can’t get it right? I may be critical of the skull mask design, but smoothing things over extremely can’t be the answer, either, don’t you think?! To me this looks like they are planning on re-using the mold on some Ninjago dragon with a bird-like head. In other words: It looks very generic. As it stands, I consider the Thanator a complete failure.
The AMP Suit
The second model in the package is the AMP (Armored Mobility Platform) “suit”, of course just a mech. Unlike many Ninjago mechs this is more reminiscent of the original Mechwarrior bots with the bulked-up, gorilla like chest and raised shoulders. From a mechanical engineering standpoint that would make a lot more sense. Compared to those overly tall mechs you have a much lower center of gravity and wouldn’t have to deal with some of the instabilities that long limbs bring. Naturally this doesn’t mean that this is “realistic” and could exist as a functioning vehicle in the real world. It’s just more logical and plausible, something the movie designers made a big point of and an established quality of James Cameron‘s movies that lends them that extra believability.
The AMP depicted in the set is not Cl. Quaritch‘s personal machine, which due to lots of repairs and usage has many parts in their natural dark grey “metal” color that never got a coat of fresh paint, but rather a stock model that was stored on the Dragon Assault Ship and with which he escapes as the vessel crashes down. The exact color appears to be more of a pale green similar to RAL 6028 Sea Green, but I guess Sand Green is a good enough match. The good news that brings about is that it required a number of pieces to be specifically recolored like the ingot piece or the rounded 1 x 2 plate. For me it also gives access to some other pieces in this color that have been around already, but in sets I never bought. This helps to bolster my parts stock.
The design of the model is reasonable for its small scale, but not particularly correct when you look closer at the details. For instance the shoulders would need to stand up and out more. It would also have been nice if they had put more effort in making the canopy airtight or create a dedicated new mold for it. After all, the point of this is that you could sit in the cockpit without requiring an extra breather mask. in an odd way this also reinforces my points about the Thanator: A more detailed and slightly larger AMP would have been preferable over so many pieces being wasted on a unrealistic creature. This would also have allowed for a more realistic chainsaw blade, which I consider the weak point of this otherwise neat little model. In the end they could have sold this alone for around 15 Euro and people might have jumped at it.
Moving on to the second set, we get Jake and Neytiri‘s iconic Ikrans/ Banshees. Jake’s is the bluish one as for whatever reason those creatures come in a million shades of different colors, allegedly having to do with how strong and dominant they are. This kind of diversity within the same (sub-)species is usually only found with lizards or some birds. Other kinds of animals often need multiple generations to develop these variations. That’s why I’m a bit torn on this, as technically these creatures are too large to spontaneously develop such drastically different skin patterns and is kind of a crutches used for visual distinction in the movie.
As you can see from the images, there’s really not much to say about the model as there ‘s just isn’t much volume. The body is more or less just a block of different two stud wide elements and some brackets and to this block a few hinges are attached to hold the wings. Those wings are just large pieces of printed transparent vinyl, a method used on Ninjago dragons as well. In contrast to those fictional creatures here they are extremely large and the wingspan could be sufficient to actually lift the creature and someone riding it. It is kind of realistic in aerodynamic terms.
The wings can be folded up, but not folded within themselves. That’s why these creatures have no feet, as actually they would “walk” on one of their “finger” bones from the wing like a bat or Pteranodon. That makes them look like they’re sitting and hatching when you don’t have them attached to the landscape piece. as you can see, LEGO created yet another new mold for the head, which perhaps is the best part about the whole thing.
Neytiris version of the Ikran is 100 % identical to Jake‘s, only with alternate colors. This makes for a very tedious and repetitive build and would be my main criticism of this set. Similar to the AMP I would have settled on just getting a single model, but a bit more elaborate. I strongly believe that a slightly larger scale also would have allowed for more rounding/ smoothing of the body as well because you would have had room for more slopes. This also would have opened up the opportunity to present a different scene with the wings folded up properly like when Neytiri first calls her “girl” on the big tree or when Jake earns his stripes when catching his one up high on the rock precipice in the floating mountains. An incidental side effect of this would have been that they could have re-created those locations as well instead of just including a generic Pandora-ish looking looking lansdscape.
The underside shot once more illustrates the huge wingspan and the “bone” structure built from Technic elements. The funny thing here is that in fact the wings are robust enough, but the attachment with the hinges doesn’t live up to that. it can barely hold the weight and moving the wings into other positions makes them come off quite bit. At least for the large wings they probably should have added a second hinge or at least some clip/ bar combo to make it more stable.
I regret having to say that both sets are quite disappointing. The irony here is that you can see the seeds of what could have been, but the result is a letdown. In particular the creatures, which should be the highlight, leave a lot to be desired. The new custom molds for the heads can’t disguise the fact that their bodies are severely lacking in details and the proportions are weird. It’s not even that more realism was sacrificed in favor of more playability, because that isn’t the case, either. A six-legged creature that doesn’t get its feet on the ground certainly doesn’t count and neither do some “flying wire frames” whose wings come off.
As it is, I cannot really recommend either of the two packages. The parts that are interesting (landscapes, AMP suit) are not elaborate and refined enough whereas the rest makes you feel like a lot of pieces are wasted on mediocre models that in no way manage to capture the magic of the movie. This really feels like someone was trying to “ride the wave” with the original movie having been re-released in cinemas in a spiced up version and the immanent release of the first of the new films for which LEGO sets have already been hinted at. In other words: This comes across as a cash grab preying on peoples love and nostalgia, but the substance of the sets is as lacking as the story of the movie itself.
Once more these are sets based on a licensed IP (intellectual property) that make you wonder who is signing off on those deals and whether the products are being reviewed thoroughly enough before being declared ready for release. I really have a hard time believing that the people making those decisions even care…