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Zemeckis Plans to Bust a Nut…

Do you remember when Robert Zemeckis used to make accessible films starring actual human beings? Films that were no less magical because filming was constrained by reality rather than computer generated imagery. Well, apparently that Zemeckis is long gone at this stage, as he’s announced that he’s going to be following up A Christmas Carol with The Nutcracker, a similar CGI adaptation.


So many inappropriate jokes, so little time...

In fairness, I haven’t seen A Christmas Carol, so I may be blown out of the water by it, despite my skepticism. I have, however, seen Beowolf and The Polar Express. Neither was a bad film per se (and, being honest, I doubt that A Christmas Carol will be terrible of itself), but they both seemed as though we were meant to be more impressed with the technical wizardry than with what was actually happening on screen during the story. There’s always room to be impressed by new technology, but I think that we’re reaching the point that technical improvements between the films are so minimal that they can’t impress on their own.

There’s another problem. I’ll concede that Zemeckis has managed to get very close to digitally emulating humans (that’s by no means a slight on Pixar – they simply haven’t been too bothered with photorealistic capture). However, his creations still remain denizens of the uncanny valley – there’s something distinctly creepy about them (and not just the fact that all of them are played by Tom Hanks in The Polar Express). The problem is simple: if you want a movie featuring realistic-looking people, why not use real people? Why are we so fascinated with making computer-generated hyper-realistic images? Surely the real beauty of CGI is using to to augment reality or even create a new reality.

Pixar know this truth – their movies simply couldn’t be made without being animated (imagine a floating house or a talking toy or a town of monsters). Computer-generated animation allows entire worlds to exist which would be impossible to create otherwise (in a way it’s similar to the dwindling art of regular animation). CGI also helps insert sequences into live action films that would be impossible to capture on celluloid. Even Christopher Nolan, famed for his love of real action sequences was forced to use CGI for the helicopter crash in The Dark Knight (though there is a moment when the helicopter shell becomes real and regular stuntwork resumes). I’d suggest that CGI can never truly be realistic enough to replace live actors and is best used to either give us something that could not be captured in reality or to create an entirely new world. To strive to emulate real actors seems pointless and self-defeating.

Perhaps Zemeckis is coming to realise this. The Nutcracker will be an adaptation of the classic children’s story about the war between the dolls and the mice. Maybe this will be his version of Toy Story – it’s certainly not a film which could be done (convincingly) with real actors? I don’t know. I must admit that the movie excites me quite a bit more than any of his other CGI exploits.

But still, I miss the guy who gave us Back to the Future and Castaway. Engaging stories featuring fun and setpieces, but also with real human beings. Films where it was more about the story and the characters than about the technology used to put them on screen. Yes, their effects were effective, but if you put Marty McFly in a fridge (which was the original idea), the concept is still intriguing.

Then again, it’s not place to complain. He’s clearly doing something he greatly enjoys and he’s certainly earned the right to do so – just as you could excuse Tarantino his Death Proof or Scorcese his Gangs of New York because they are film makers and the films are crafted out of genuine interest rather than complex economic formula. Give me that sort of creativity and affection over mass-produced tripe any day. So maybe we shouldn’t complain.

But I can still wonder…

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