Well, if anyone was brave enough yesterday, they saw the horrifying thing that was the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer. While Jim Carey is just as funny as always, the leads of the film (James Marsden and Sonic’s Mirror Universe, deranged evil twin) leave an unsavory taste in everyone’s mouths. And do I really need to talk about the Gangster’s Paradise thing?
Of course, really, people are more troubled by the blue, human-teethed abomination than the actual human. Of all the CGI characters that fans have bawked at, Sonic definitely takes the cake.
In recent years CGI has become more and more popular in films, and while some are widely successful (The Jungle Book) others have far more mixed reactions (Alvin & The Chipmunks and sequels). Why are some CGI flicks revered when other ones become the terrible memes for months? (Looking at you, sad clown Dumbo.)
Of course, there is an inherent bias towards money and talent. Disney will of course do better than, say, Paramount Animation whose most recent films were Wonder Park and Sherlock Gnomes. In that aspect, of course the odds are stacked in some favor. However, Disney still made cute little Dumbo creepy and made a blueberry out of Will Smith. They have their flaws, of course, too. Why do some of their high budget CGI work where others fail?
Well, let’s ignore the fact Sonic is a complete absolute mess and look at some other examples. A great one is the Smurf film series. The first two looked… questionable at best, and the third is easily it’s best looking and highly rated. Why is that?
One, because they gave up on making the Smurfs look hyper-realistic. Another is the world change. Put those better, third film Smurfs into the human world and of course they’d still look terribly bizarre. Similarly, note that Dumbo, Genie, the Chipmunks, and Sonic are all set in the human world.
The simple fact is, one of the easiest ways to make CGI work is to put it in an atmosphere where it belongs. And, simply put, none of those scary creatures belong at all (though I know other people mind the Chipmunks much less than I do).
With that said, immediately someone could turn around and point fingers at The Jungle Book, Lion King, and Beauty and The Beast. After all, those live action updates all have entire CGI characters in them and work much better. Two of them even prominently feature human characters.
Joke’s on that person because it all still has to do with atmosphere. The Lion King is only populated with CGI characters that match the Savannah environment around. Beast (in colors and design) matches with the aesthetic of his enchanted castle. The creatures of The Jungle Book all are influenced by the beautiful, magnificent jungle around them. Their atmospheres fit the CGI creatures, making them look less out of place and more natural. While they obviously still don’t look real, they look like they could be real in that setting.
Furthermore, regardless of Beauty & The Beast or The Jungle Book‘s human characters, those characters are the intruders, not the home team. When humans are the rule, of course a CGI weirdo would stick out like an aggressive fever dream. They might as well be pink elephants. But when the human is the outlier, the world can instead adjust to the CGI being the norm, and the entire look and feel of everything works so much better.
In a recent article, I talked about how the makeup of Hellboy helped ruin the movie much more than just the plot could have. This is a similar concept. If a CGI chipmunk or bizarre hedgehog don’t look like they fit in the human world, they won’t. No amount of good CGI can change that. But a Pikachu in a weird, neon-noir world with other Pokemon? Yeah, sure, why not?
In the case of Detective Pikachu, the visuals went all the way. They made it into a world that people could believe have Pokemon in it living beside humans. Will Smith’s Genie is so jarring because they didn’t just make him look human or look more mystical in a way that realistically fit the world they built around him. Commonly in depictions, genies/jinns either look almost demonic, smoky, human-like, or a mix of the three balanced out. Instead, it’s like he’s cosplaying as a buff Smurf. It all comes full circle.
But, of course, aesthetic isn’t everything. Plots do matter. If a story is engaging, a viewer’s suspension of disbelief can take a lot of hits. I personally disliked the Beast design more because of the lack of revitalized story, and liked The Jungle Book‘s so much more because of it’s clever re-telling. Orangutans are 100% never that huge. But I let it pass because I was enjoying it.
A wild idea to sell a look better is to make better stories. Flashy CGI isn’t enough to make a movie watchable. The CGI needs to feel like it has a place in that world and that world needs a good story to tell. Don’t just CGI cause CGI is neat. That’s like doing something just because it’s cool. And how did that go for movies like The Emoji Movie?
However, to be honest, I don’t think the best story in the world could save this face.