Is It Time to Rethink the Line Between Animated and Live-Action Movies?
As I sat watching a pre-release screening of Aquaman a couple weeks ago, I kept getting hung up on the same thought. Admittedly, my mind had been wandering a bit — unlike a lot of other critics, including ScreenCrush’s own Matt Singer, I did not enjoy Aquaman, committed goofiness aside — but during one of the various scenes set in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, I could not stop thinking the same thing: “This is an animated movie.” And this thought isn’t just exclusive to Aquaman, but to many purported live-action films that are awash in computer-generated imagery. It’s time to rethink how we treat live-action and animated films, because the lines keep blurring.
Aquaman may seem like a unique case — how many other big-budget movies of the last few years take place largely underwater? But it’s just the latest example of animated effects taking precedent over live actors in a major feature film. In the film’s many underwater sequences, characters like Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Mera (Amber Heard), and King Orm (Patrick Wilson, and please, call him “Ocean Master”) swim around, get into battles, ride sharks like they’re horses, etc. The combined effect of all these sequences is that it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching real actors placed in front of green screens. Instead, many of the effects-heavy sequences feel as if visual effects artists literally had to draw on the faces of these actors to the otherwise CG bodies of the characters.
Of course, Aquaman isn’t the first comic-book movie to feel like it’s being created whole cloth from computers; hell, it’s not even the first such film from this calendar year to have that effect. Plenty of sequences in Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Ant-Man and the Wasp depict presumably live actors in settings that call to mind video-game cut scenes in terms of their shaky attempt at approximating real life. It’s not exactly a case where Marvel or DC films fall into the fabled “uncanny valley”, in which animation attempting to mimic the style of real actors becomes almost physically unnerving to watch. However, when Ant-Man goes into the Quantum Realm or when all your favorite MCU heroes travel to another planet to stop Thanos from using the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of humanity, you’re not watching real people in a real environment, but a lot of CGI thrown at the screen.
The rules for the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars deem that if animation figures in 75 percent of a film’s running time, it qualifies as feature animation. Without going frame by frame in films like those mentioned above, it’s difficult to say for sure if Aquaman qualifies based on the AMPAS regulations. What’s not difficult is seeing how little of the film was created on an actual set, as opposed to CG environments being created around live actors, who can only constitute so much of a given frame of a feature film. Even if this is intentional — when Arthur’s lighthouse-keeper father stands on its dock, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean, it’s aggressively obvious that actor Temuera Morrison is standing in front of a green screen, as if its 1950s-style projection — it’s hard to treat Aquaman as anything but animated.
The lines are blurring even further in 2019 of what constitutes a live-action or animated film. Walt Disney Pictures, over the last few years, has gone to the trouble of remaking its hand-drawn animated films. They’ve made everything from the execrable Alice in Wonderland (which itself feels like an animated film, even if the animation there is profoundly unpleasant to look at) to the charming 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, a David Lowery-directed film that managed to feel much closer to an actual live-action film that happened to include some CG effects.
But consider Jon Favreau’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, in which the end credits state that the film was made “in downtown Los Angeles”. That’s because the entire film was crafted either on sound stages where young Neel Sethi, as Mowgli, acted in front of blue screens, or on computers. Most of the A-list voice cast of The Jungle Book did their work in a recording studio, not wearing motion-capture suits. (If you watch the behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray, you’ll see exactly how blue the sets were to construct the jungles of India.) If the Academy says a movie has to be 75 percent animated to count as an animated feature, then how could The Jungle Book be anything but animated? The same goes for Favreau’s next film, the sure-to-be-massive remake of The Lion King, which many people have helpfully (and likely inaccurately) deemed a live-action remake. That would be quite the surprise, seeing as there are no humans in the story and the recent teaser trailer suggests that the animals will be CGI creations. They will, in short, be animated, just in a different format and style than in the 1994 original.
Last year, there was an entire Oscar campaign that spoke to one angle of the live-action vs. animation debate. That was thanks to actor/filmmaker Andy Serkis, whose motion-capture performance as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise had gotten enough (justified) critical praise that Fox tried to push him as a candidate for Best Actor. Though he didn’t get a nomination — he never got one as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films either — it’s an understandable push.
Serkis is just as worthy of consideration for awards as any actor not wearing a mo-cap suit; the stigma, of course, is that if the work is animated, it may not be worth consideration for an Oscar. (This is why it’s been so remarkable, even with up to 10 Best Picture nominees, that Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 both got a nod in that category.) The Serkis campaign is similar to the debate a few years ago about whether or not Scarlett Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for her voice work in Spike Jonze’s Her (she absolutely did). Though that film is live-action, the stigma of voice work being associated with animation persists.
This is arguably why studios like Warner Bros. and Disney may be loath to categorize films that absolutely are animated as “animation”. (Regarding the Lion King remake, Disney has neither dubbed it live-action or animation, simply describing the “technologically groundbreaking” production, which seems like a stretch unless a computer-animated film can be called technologically groundbreaking in 2019.) Animation still has a stigma of being juvenile or immature, even as comic-book films draw their inspiration from a style of animation, and some of them can even be complex and mature. (For that, just skip Aquaman and watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse instead.)
But films like Aquaman — and the reality that comic-book movies, animation remakes, and other adaptations aren’t going away anytime soon — are an important reminder to critics and audiences alike: we need to approach these movies differently. You may love Aquaman or find it irretrievably stupid (it me). But its relationship to live-action filmmaking is tenuous at best.
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