There’s more to Avatar than spectacular special effects and a reported $300 million price tag: the epic film has a distinct environmental message. It’s set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a moon of a distant planet inhabited by fantastical flora and fauna and 11-foot-tall blue beings called the Na’vi, who live in harmony with nature. In contrast, Earth is now treeless and devastated, its energy sources depleted by human mismanagement. Pandora is rich in a rare mineral called Unobtanium that would solve the energy crisis, so the intergalactic imperialists (yes, the Americans are the clear bad guys here) set out to lay waste to the Na’vi’s rain forest habitat to obtain Unobtanium.

As director James Cameron (Titanic) sees it, the Na’vi “represent our better selves in how they live in their world — in symbiosis, empathy and harmony. This is something to which we should all aspire. To that end, I think the story celebrates a connection to the environment, maybe at a time when we've lost touch with it." Adds actress Zoë Saldana, who spent months on a performance-capture stage and underwent rigorous physical training to play the Na’vi heroine Neytiri, "The Na'vi also can't understand how the humans mistreat the environment, which is holy to the Na'vi."

In theaters Dec. 18, Avatar has been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director.

(Related on MNN: Potential blockbuster Avatar has an ambitious eco-message.)

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Robert Sean Leonard (pictured right), who plays Dr. James Wilson on House, became more eco-conscious after the birth of his daughter Eleanor last January, especially when it comes to organic eating. “We make our own food for her. We have this thing that both steams and purees — you put the vegetables in there and you’re done,” he says. But for some other parenting duties, he admits comfort trumps green. “We started with cloth diapers, but they’re very big, clumsy and heavy and it’s hot in L.A. They were hot for her.” 

Although House is “a great place to work, the cast and the writing are everything you hope to have,” Leonard says he can’t wait to get home to his daughter. The best thing about fatherhood? There’s a list of many things,” he says, “Though having her fall asleep while you’re holding her is pretty great.”

Disney’s Friends for Change, a youth-targeted environmental campaign launched last spring, is partnering with Youth Service America to fund planet-saving projects and eco-friendly community changes brought about by kids, awarding 150 $500 grants in 2010. To spread the word, a holiday-themed version of the Friends for Change anthem, Send it On, performed by teen stars Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez (pictured above), will air on Radio Disney, Disney Channel and Disney.com this month in audio and video form. Friends for Change Grants are open to schools, organizations and individuals — visit Disney.com/projectgreen for information on how to apply.

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Additional photo credits: Robert Sean Leonard by Kevin Winter/Fox; Friends for Change by Jaimie Trueblood/Disney Channel.