'Avatar' Gets Mixed Praise From Paraplegics

Photo: Wheelchair users applaud paraplegic-character in "Avatar"

Like others who flocked to see the blockbuster movie "Avatar," 26-year-old Santina Muha was thrilled by the visuals.

But unlike the majority of people in the theatre, she wasn't just imagining life on the distant moon Pandora. She was vicariously living the fantasy of regaining the use of her legs.

"The scene where the character goes from his wheelchair into his 'avatar,' where he's walking and playing basketball, it was really touching," said Muha, who had a spinal cord injury in a car accident at age 5.

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"It gave me chills," she said. "I'm a wheelchair user for 20 years; I can't even remember what it was like…just stretching his legs out like that. He must have just felt like it was the ultimate stretch."

Audiences learn that the hero, Cpl. Jake Sully, lost the use of his legs while on duty as a Marine. Sully, played by able-bodied Sam Worthington, ends up on a mission to the lush moon of a distant planet where current technology gives his mind access to a cloned body of one of the local humanoid aliens, the Na'vi.

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The human-Na'vi interactions on Pandora have drawn criticism and praise for what some see as political undertones about conquest, environmentalism and war.

But for Muha and others with spinal cord injuries, the movie's greatest statement was to feature a paraplegic lead character in an action movie.

"I didn't feel like it was a pity story about someone in a wheelchair," said Muha, a communications associate at the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and the current Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey.

VIDEO: David Blaustein Reviews Avatar
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'Avatar' Didn't Focus on Disability

Steve Coleman, of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, thought "Avatar"succeeded in showing the mental and emotional strength of disabled veterans.

"It showed you perspective that, although his legs weren't working, his heart and mind were working," said Coleman.

Coleman, who spent 25 years in U.S. Army Special Operations, also thought Sully's interactions with the Na'vi and with other soldiers on Pandora reflected some real-world dichotomies in the military.

Lost In Translation
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Did Hollywood Strike Out With Wheelchair Users in the Past?

Despite the military themes, Sully's paralysis was pivotal to the plot and the moral crises he faced in the movie.

Muha and other spinal cord injury advocates say they felt his decisions about living in a wheelchair were a welcome change from the way paraplegics are frequently portrayed in popular movies.

Classic Hollywood often used wheelchairs as a symbol of life's tragedies. In "An Affair to Remember," Deborah Kerr loses the use of her legs -- and Cary Grant's love as well.

Recent movies have taken an even darker view of disability.

"'Million Dollar Baby' -- that was really, really badly done from a person-with-disabilities perspective," said Phil Klebine, who is a counselor and a tetraplegic. He has paralysis in his arms and legs, but is able to use a wheelchair.

"Million Dollar Baby" won the Adademy Award as best picture of the year. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film follows a young woman named Maggie, played by Hillary Swank, who wants to become a boxing champion but is paralyzed in the ring.

"What I hated about 'Million Dollar Baby,' it showed all the worst things about having a disability," said Klebine, who thought all the complications Maggie suffers after her accident could have easily been avoided with decent care.

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