Never, EVER doubt James Cameron.

After over a decade, the highly anticipated sequel to Avatar is out and it delivers – BIG TIME. James Cameron’s first film since, well, Avatar, is a big and bombastic visual spectacle. I was excited to return to Pandora after so many years, and while the story and runtime drag this film down at times, this is still a great film.

The best part of this film is easily the visuals. Cameron’s fictitious world, Pandora, is unfathomably realistic and stunning and the Na’vi people are incredibly lifelike. The visuals are so damn good that when someone like Spider, the human character portrayed by Jack Champion, is on screen, he feels out of place and almost as if he’s green-screened in. That’s how good Pandora looks. I could go on endlessly about the visuals, but I will just say that it would be criminal if this film doesn’t win Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.

The cast here is as strong as the Sully family bond. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Lang all return from the first film and step back into their roles as if they never left. Worthington and Saldaña do a great job reprising their roles, but a special shout-out goes to Lang and Weaver who come back as pseudo-reincarnations of their original characters from Avatar. Two newcomers, James Cameron regular, Kate Winslet, and a known associate of Tony Soprano, Edie Falco, join the cast in roles that will be further developed in the sequels. While their presence was limited in The Way of Water, I have a feeling this will change in later films. A new addition, and amazing highlight of the film, are the young characters and fresh faces in the Avatar family. Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, and Jack Champion all bring so much to the table in terms of acting power. These are the faces of the future of this franchise, and they were exceptional in every way.

The familial themes in this film are heartwarming. If you are a parent, prepare to cry and if you’re a child, this movie will make you want to hug your loved ones and tell them how much you love them because you never know when it’ll be the last time.

The story and pacing are this film’s biggest problems. The 13-year gap between Avatar and The Way of Water meant that Cameron had to fill in some blanks and give lots of exposition while also recapping the first film. This makes the first half of the film feel a bit sluggish and boring at times. The mediocre script doesn’t do anything to elevate it either sadly. I hope this is a problem that gets fixed in future films because the stunning visuals will only take it so far. On the other hand, the second half is more fast-paced and exciting and the last third of this film is absolutely perfect.

Overall, Avatar: The Way of Water is leaps and bounds better than Avatar. Even with some slight hiccups along the way, the return to Pandora was definitely worth the wait and Avatar 3 can’t come soon enough.