As computer animation evolves, the line between acting and drawing grows increasingly blurred. Should Edward Norton or the animator get the credit for the emotional range of the Hulk? Can you separate Andy Serkis from the LOTR animation team when evaluating Gollum? Yet if history is our guide, none of the most breathtaking performances in this year’s big releases (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland) will get the kudos they deserve. In an effort to right that wrong, here’s a history of movies with great CGI performances worthy of greater recognition.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton’s moments as the monster in The Incredible Hulk were aided hugely by CGI which allowed the scrawny white actor to morph into a giant green Norton look-a-like. In contrast to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), this version seamlessly blended motion capture, key frame animation, phosphorescent paint and strobe lighting to capture a wide range of human emotions, not just rage. It’s the most effective Hulk seen so far on screen — big or small. (Sorry Lou Ferrigno!) As such, it may have been the most underrated performance of last year.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Spider-Man‘s villains are some of the coolest examples of how far CGI has come. Topher Grace’s Venom and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman might not quite rank with Heath Ledger’s non-animated performance in The Dark Knight, but the manic grin grafted on Grace’s face was still pretty amazing. As to Church, his most memorable scenes were those which found him half acting and half sand. Sure, he was nominated for an Oscar for Sideways (2004), but here he’s pretty impressive too when embodying a massive tornado.
Just three words are needed to justify Beowulf‘s place on this list: Angelina Jolie naked. Jolie was just one of many CGI-ed actors in this movie but she alone emerges as its star. Why? Well, months before this flick hit theaters all anyone could talk about was her naked bod, even if it was just a cartoon. However big a flop Beowulf turned out to be, in it, a golden Jolie emerged from a pool and seduced mankind yet again in a completely different form. That’s worthy of some sort of an award, isn’t it?
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
For the final entry in the X-Men trilogy, aging thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen underwent the computerized version of plastic surgery. (If youth were only as easily attainable as “digital skin grafting.”) True, age-shaving has been done before and since (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) but the time has come to give props to those who effectively play themselves but younger. This movie has two of the finest living actors doing it… with a little help. Better than the soft-focus lens? You bet! Better than Botox? Perhaps.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Everyone adores Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, but undead pirate Davy Jones holds a special place in the hearts of special-effects obsessives. Thanks to motion-capture advancements, Bill Nighy acted on set alongside the other thesps instead of in front of a blue screen. The results feel that much more real. Nighy’s turn as the eternally sad pirate is particularly impressive when you consider his face is covered in gnarly writhing tentacles. Does the F/X get in the way of the performance? No. It enhances it!
King Kong (2005)
When has an animal ever expressed so much emotion? It took a combination of seriously talented CGI technicians and an equally gifted actor to pull this one off. The computer generated primate gives a stronger performance than his co-stars. Check out that display of rage, that look of confusion, that gaze of love. Much credit goes to the inimitible Andy Serkis on whose movements the Great Ape’s were based. And much credit goes to those other guys. A true team effort.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Franchise newbie Dobby manages to walk the line of almost-annoying without quite crossing over. That’s more than can be said for some of the human actors in Harry Potter’s world. Dobby’s face got special treatment due to an award-winning new technology which made light reflect more naturally off faux skin surfaces. The portrayal was so convincing Vladimir Putin was reportedly peeved at the character’s similarities with his own idiosyncratic charms.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Sure, Elijah Wood is the one who actually won the awards, but really all he did was pout the entire trilogy! Gollum, on the other hand, introduced the world to a new generation of CGI with the first realistic motion-captured character in a movie. This creepy critter wows with spot-on expressions, especially in the scenes “between” Good Gollum and Bad Gollum. The performance is so good that Andy Serkis was rumored to be up for a Supporting Actor Oscar. Didn’t happen, alas.
The ghosts in Casper brought a touching (if dead) humanity to the world of CGI. While 1991’s Terminator 2 used CGI to make the scariest villain yet, Casper was the first fully computer-generated main character to grace the silver screen in a live action movie. The movie’s ghosts interact with the other, real actors with impressive fluidity, while Casper himself manages to avoid what could have been a cartoony cheese-fest with translucent, almost 3D ease. Plus, he’s cute.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Robert Patrick’s slithery T-1000 doesn’t just steal the show in this sequel, it also brought computer generated characters to a new level, and the movie won that year’s Oscar for visual effects in good part because of it. Patrick’s shape-changer could melt from one character to another with total fluidity. The only negative to his performance? The puddle of metal couldn’t interact with other characters. Not his fault, technically speaking.