The weather was fairly blah around here on Saturday. Cloudy and little bits of rain all day long, but still too warm to just hang about at home with a nice cup of cocoa. We decided a day like yesterday meant only one thing: time to go to the movies! And since it was a particularly uninspiring day (weather-wise) we decided to go put together a double feature: Beowulf in 3-D and The Golden Compass.
Tim really wanted to see Beowulf and it seemed like going to the 3-D version would add a nice novelty effect, so I was all for it. The screenplay was also co-written by one of our favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. Going in to the movie, I think we were both a little leery of the whole "performance capture" technology, sort of a merge between live action and animation. I don't think either of us had ever seen a 3-D movie so we didn't know what to expect from that either. After seeing the movie, both the 3-D and the performance capture stuff was a huge distraction from an otherwise interesting and well-written story. I'm all for using technology when it makes sense, but when technology interferes I think it's a mistake. On top of that, the glasses we had to wear for the 3-D effect were fairly uncomfortable and, even worse, not recyclable even though they're made of plastic and intended for single use (hello, unnecessary waste!). Overall, I just kept thinking... "If only this were a live-action movie with digital effects, it would totally rock." In my mind, there was no good reason to make the movie this way, other than a director trying to push technology. The unfortunate effect is that the movie as a whole suffered. While the main characters (mostly) came off as semi-realistic looking, the secondary characters all seemed to be much less developed - as if all of the animation time was devoted to the main characters and they forgot to put the fancy "real" powder on the secondary characters. My big issue with the technology was mostly due to facial expressions and eye contact - the way the characters moved was actually quite good.
Also, as an aside, the entire scene where a completely nude Beowulf is fighting Grendel and they were constantly popping up items (a candlestick, a table, and even at one point an artfully held sword) to cover Beowulf's privates? So unintentionally hilarious it was almost worth watching the movie just for that. Unfortunately, this clumsy approach took a pivotal and tense battle scene and made it laughable. I'm also curious about why it's totally okay to show animated-Angelina Jolie in all her glory but Beowulf needed some privacy?
The Golden Compass
Confession: I've never read the Phillip Pullman book this movie is based on. I remember starting it, but I never managed to get into the book (or the other two books). We went to see the movie really just based on the previews.
And the surprising conclusion? I loved the movie! Now, it's no Lord of the Rings (one of their marketing approaches) and it's not really even the Chronicles of Narnia (another one of their marketing angles). I think this might have been the best performance by a child actor that I've ever seen. Dakota Blue Richards made her character this mixture of smart, sassy, independent, and free-thinking without being too precocious or too much like an adult or irritating. The other big stars of the movies are actually digital effects - the animals, in the form of the ice bears (looked a bit like Coca-Cola polar bears, but didn't act like them!) and the "daemons" which are animals who embody part of the souls of all of the humans in the movie. Unlike Beowulf, where animation technology was a barrier to the story, the animals were skillfully done and played a key role in making the movie enjoyable.
Tim didn't enjoy the movie quite as much as I did, but I think he felt it was still time well spent.
Deep in the Uncanny Valley
There's an interesting theory called the Uncanny Valley (brief article on wikipedia) about emotional responses to artificial representations of real-world phenomenon. Paraphrasing (and interpreting) the idea - the closer you try make an artificial version of something match how it looks in the real world, the more critically people will assess the artificial version. These two movies presented an interesting uncanny valley contrast.
There were artificial, digitally-created people in Beowulf and animals in The Golden Compass. Why am I such a harsh judge of the people in Beowulf and such a fan of the animals in The Golden Compass? Was the animation of the animals really so much better than the animation of the people??? My answer is an emphatic NO. I'd be willing to bet that the animation of the people was actually higher quality and even matched real-world movement to a much greater degree. The problem lies in the fact that while it was clear that the animals in The Golden Compass were not real (they changed shapes! they talked!), the people in Beowulf were supposed to be more "real". It's easy to ignore if the facial expression of a talking cat isn't quite right, but it's hard to ignore it if the eyes on an animated person look totally lifeless.
Sorry to get so chatty about this, but I spent half of Beowulf leaning over and whispering "uncanny valley" into Tim's ear, so it was clearly on my mind :)