I have never seen either "The Polar Express" or "Monster House" but last night I went to see "Beowulf" (caution - mild spoilers ahead).
I'm not sure why Robert Zemeckis and his crew has embraced motion-capture technology for making movies or why they chose to make the designs in "Beowulf" look so realistic and true-to-life, but all of my reservations about that approach were confirmed as I watched the movie (on a giant Imax screen, no less, but not in 3D).
I'm convinced that the human brain is wired so that when we see something that's really close to real life - but not quite actual living, breathing natural life - that our brain gets very confused and uncomfortable. I don't know why our minds are wired this way but the closer the computer gets to re-creating "reality" the creepier and more uncomfortable it is to watch. You could show one minute of the movie to anyone anywhere in the wold and they would all know instantly that it's not real actors. And I really do believe that our minds are at first repelled by this kind of "recreated reality", and then we have to make a subconscious effort to stifle that reaction in order to sit still and watch it for a couple of hours.
You'll have to weigh in and tell me if I'm alone in this or if everybody else senses this as well. Some reviewers seem to have picked up on it, but not many.
Anyway, I have a hard time seeing the benefits of this pursuit to recreate "reality" in the computer. For all the talk over the years that "digital actors" would replace the real thing, I don't ever see that happening. Audiences felt far more emotional connection to and sympathy with the characters in "The Incredibles" than anybody ever will for any of the characters in "Beowulf". People felt far more emotion for the characters in "Dumbo" and "Bambi" for that matter. Personally, I think the critics embrace it more than the general public because deep down I believe all critics are snobs and they think somehow animation that's "realistic" is okay to like but anything that's more "cartoony" is for children and beneath their notice (plus being based on a century-old poem helps give the picture credibilities with critics too, no doubt). Interestingly, at Yahoo!movies, the critical consensus of "B" is higher than the public's grade, which is settling at a "B-" as I write this. Usually, the public is more generous than the critics.
The real shame of this is that, lurking under the creepy facade of the filmmaking, there is a really good film. In his review of the film, Ralph of KROQ-FM (heard here in Los Angeles) said that he felt it would be one of the best movies of the year if not for the creepy performances of the digital puppets. There were other things that I didn't necessarily like about the movie but certainly if the movie had been made more like most live action movies, with real humans in a real world, enhanced by CG and CG creatures, the movie would have played a lot better, I think. There were several moments that were clearly supposed to be funny that the audience didn't respond to, and I really believe that if it were real actors with real charm and presence the audience would have definitely responded (and the film could have used a few laughs to help balance out the very dark art direction and tone). When we laugh along with the characters in a movie, we relate to them and we are sucked into their spell, their charm - we can't help but like them. There were also parts that the audience laughed at that were not meant to get laughs, including one point where characters referred to the Queen as "beautiful", which the CG version of Robin Wright Penn clearly was not. And there were moments of downright creepiness that were made all the more disturbing by the fact that they were in CG, like one of the first moments in the film, where a more corpulent and more weathered version of real-world Anthony Hopkins gyrates around clad only in a sheet. The sheet keeps sliding off and the audience is lead to believe that at any moment we might see his digitally rendered "naughty bits" but of course that never happens. However, we are rewarded a moment later with a big close up of his motion-captured butt. Now, would a live-action film do that? Would we really enjoy being "teased" in a live-action film that we might see the real crotch of Anthony Hopkins? Good Lord, no. So why does Zemeckis play that beat with a creepy, digital version of Hopkins with added rolls of digital fat? I don't know, but the audience definitely didn't seem to think it was funny, if that was the intention. Again, there might be something kind of funny about this if it was a real actor, but somehow, the digital version made it even more disturbing and off-putting.
Certainly, Zemeckis doesn't help his case much here. I would think that - if you were aware that this kind of CG can be creepy - you would do your best to construct the film so as to make everything as palatable as possible and avoid showing the audience the more disturbing side of CG. But the very first shot involves following a roasted pig as it's carried on a spit, rendered in all of it's greasy, drippy real-world glory. And, as I mentioned, we're treated to a big close-up of Hopkins' digital behind. Also the creature design was not only fairly unimaginative, but also super creepy in 3D, because of the way it's designed and rendered. Far too many videogames and live-action movies seem to go out of their way to create ugly, ugly creatures in three dimensions. They could learn a lot from the 2D world about how to design something that looks evil and creepy but still retains a lot of appeal in the overall design and in the way that it's presented.
Also, the scenes where the digital Angelina Jolie was supposed to be "beautiful" and seduce Beowulf, the audience just had to go along and believe that he found her attractive. Again, in a normal live-action movie, we get sucked into the world (if the movie is good) and when our hero is being seduced by a beautiful girl, we are being seduced as well because we find whatever actress is playing the part as attractive and alluring as the hero of the film does. But with a movie like Beowulf, we had to make an intellectual leap that the CG version of Jolie is beautiful, without the benefit of the warmth a real flesh-and-blood actress brings to the big screen), and I found myself watching the movie like that all the way through: at arm's length, intellectually engaging with the story but not sucked into a world and characters that I cared about.
Again, it's so strange to think that I could feel such emotion to Lady, Tramp, Pinocchio, Dumbo and many other characters with such a high level of caricature and abstraction, painted on flat cels and photographed against a flat background. Even animated characters like Ariel are so much more "beautiful" than the CG "picture-perfect" version of Angelina Jolie because Ariel is a simplified abstraction of what makes a girl pretty.
I don't know, maybe it's just me, or maybe in general us artists are more sensitive to this kind of stuff than the rest of the world. I was very surprised to find the theater only half-full last night, so then again maybe the rest of the world is creeped out by the digital world as well.
Really, in the end, what is the benefit to making movies this way? Why pay great actors to play the parts and then go through all the hassle to put it into weird mo-cap CG in order to remove all the charm and charisma that an actual person brings to the screen? Just so Hopkins can avoid having to do his hair and makeup and he can work in sweat pants? The first film made with this technology - "The Polar Express" - did well at the box office, but Zemeckis's second effort ("Monster House") didn't fare nearly as well (although the critics raved about that one as well), so I can't imagine that the studio thinks this mo-cap approach is a big draw with audiences. Judging by the number of people at the theater last night, "Beowulf" will not do as well as it would have if it were done in a more conventional way, which is too bad.
Anyway, flesh-and-blood actors should not fear that they will be replaced by their digital counterparts any time soon, and real animators won't be replaced by actors performing while wearing mo-cap ping-pong balls anytime soon either. I still encourage everyone to see the movie (because I believe every filmmaker should see everything) and see it in order to judge for yourself. There are many great shots in the movie and some amazing sequences (which I don't tend to notice as much in films where I find myself caught up in the emotions of the story) that are worth seeing just for their own sake. In any case, feel free to weigh in and tell me if you feel the same way I do (I have set up a poll on the right to get an accurate sampling - you can select multiple answers if you want).
UPDATE: I knew there was a name for this phenomenon, but I couldn't remember the name. Jim (see comments) provided it as well as a link to the article about it: uncanny valley. Thanks Jim!