Tuned In

Animation Wednesday Continued: My Two Beefs with Beowulf

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OK, this is not exactly a post about TV. Well, it’s about the subject of a TV commercial. Give me a break. If this strike goes on for a few months, you’re going to see me doing posts about the commercials for Swiffer mops.

So I finally saw a spot for Beowulf, which opens November 16. I’m tremendously curious about the movie, although, I will admit, I was not exactly a 300 obsesssive either. What skeeves me about the preview is the same thing that bugs me about almost all near-lifelike animation: that it’s just close enough to life to look creepily fake.

I’m hardly the first person to note this effect. A Japanese roboticist named it “The Uncanny Valley,” and Clive Thompson gave it a great summation, as applied to video games, in Slate:

The whole point is to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself. But that’s hard to do when the characters create goosebumps. You fight searing battles, solve brain-crushing puzzles, vanquish enemies, and what are you rewarded with? A chance to watch your avatar mince about the screen in some ghoulish parody of humanity.

The thing is, this actually wouldn’t bother me terribly in a video game. It’s in a film, in which I’m supposed to identify with characters as humans (or at least sentient beings) that it utterly distracts me. A stylized animal of machine in a Pixar movie, or the crude figures of South Park, are far more human to me than the animated corpses of “lifelike” video game animation.

I realize I’m being a cranky old man. And I hope the actual movie proves me wrong. But I’d rather play a video game than watch one.

OK, so that’s my first beef. My second: if you’re creating virtual humans in a film, why bother going out and casting stars like Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich? I’m not sure how many Beowulf fanboys care if they hear the vocal stylings of Malkovich in a movie to begin with. But I really think they don’t say to themselves: “I really want to hear the vocal stylings of John Malkovich, coming from a figure who looks kind of like the zombie wax dummy of John Malkovich.”

Wasn’t part of the genius of 300, after all, its avoidance of A-list voice talent? It seems like a waste of money, but saving Robert Zemeckis’ money is not my concern as a critic or a moviegoer. The bigger problem is that animating the homunculus of a big movie star adds to the uncanniness, and thus takes me out of the movie–a weird, floaty-moving Robin Wright Penn simply distracts me in a way that a weird, floaty-moving generic Spartan does not.

Or am I simply underestimating the fanboy appeal of a digitized Angelina Jolie? You tell me.