In recent years, with the rise of better technology, computer-generated imagery (or CGI) has become an asset to the film industry. Studios are able to create fantastical images and creatures from around the world (or even out of this world) without the need to travel to these places. CGI can make Los Angeles look like it’s in an apocalyptic fire (which, to be fair, it looks like that during fire season) or that Tokyo is being assailed by a giant hail storm.
Though much has been said about how CGI has impacted live-action film, it has had an even greater impact on animated film. That being said, has CGI helped to make animated film better or worse?
For this, I’ll be focusing specifically on Pixar and Disney, as they are the most well-known for their animated films and have a longer history of both good and not-so-good films.
Animated film started out as a two dimensional (2D) medium in the early days of film, with the first full-length animated feature film being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (dir. David Hand and others, 1937). 2D animation continued to be the one of the most utilized mediums for film, usually led by the Walt Disney Studios. It even combined live-action and 2D animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1988).
When Pixar Animation Studios released its first film (with the help of Disney) in 1995, it began to change animated films as they are today.
Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter, 1995) was Pixar’s first full-length animated feature film, which happened to be three dimensional (3D) CGI. The film brought to life the inner minds of toys and questioned the toys’ feelings and interactions with each other in a childhood bedroom. The CGI, though still very stylized, helped to make the characters look real, three dimensional, like they were trying to imitate live action films. At the time, because this type of CGI had not been utilized much, the film received widespread acclaim for its technological achievements. Many people also praised the film’s story and characters, how both the plot and the characters were easy enough for children to connect with them but also how they appealed to more adult audiences by using sly references and a slightly sophisticated tone in how they approached the plot. The adults connected with the film on a deeper, emotional level while most kids connected with the film through the characters’ personalities and music. The CGI helped, in that case, to enhance the film. It became a successful model for Pixar.
With the films following Toy Story, Pixar followed the same blueprint. A Bug’s Life (dir. John Lasseter, 1998) looked closely at ants and the world and interaction between bugs, again including emotional themes for adults to connect with and fun characters for children. Toy Story 2 (dir. John Lasseter, 1999) did the same as its prequel, but added more emotional layers through the additions of new characters and a deeper backstory for one of its main characters. As the 2000s began, other studios, like DreamWorks, used that same CGI model and added in even more adult innuendos and jokes, while still being very kid friendly, to achieve the masterpiece that is Shrek (dir. Andrew Adamson, 2001). CGI was now being more widely used, both in animation and in live-action, and studios were learning how to continue to advance the technology while also keeping that same quality.
However, though the technology did advance, the quality of the storytelling began to be more hit-and-miss, especially with Disney and Pixar.
Despite Disney owning Pixar, Disney felt compelled to move to solely CGI for its animation as well. The 2D hand–drawn animation that the studio was known for wasn’t making enough profit. It was under the impression that, if the studio wanted to remain current and compete with its Pixar counterpart, the use of CGI in its animation was needed. Its early 3D animated films were, in a word, panned. Disney also began to turn Pixar’s CGI films and characters into profitable franchises, creating newer sequels for some of its early and very successful 2000s films. But, because Disney was so money-driven (like all corporations), the storytelling suffered. The CGI, though stunning and more realistic than in 1995, barely made up for the lack of emotion and plot in these films. Specifically, Cars 2 (dir. John Lasseter, 2011) was heavily criticized by audiences and film critics alike, with the website Rotten Tomatoes stating “Cars 2 is as visually appealing as any other Pixar production, but all that dazzle can’t disguise the rusty storytelling under the hood.” The CGI makes for a nice film to look at, but that can’t be the backbone of a film. Films cannot rely on CGI alone to tell their story for them and if studios become lazy with their storytelling, the film suffers.
As time went on, into the last couple years, the CGI has advanced even more. Live action films that heavily feature CGI made incredibly realistic backgrounds, CGI animated films looked more and more realistic. Both Pixar and Disney had figured out how to create great stories and use CGI to their advantage. Their animated films showed closeups of animated water that looked real and fiber on toys’ clothing that looked more like real life than animation.
But then, Disney crossed a line in CGI with its remake of The Lion King (dir. Jon Favreau, 2019). The film, composed entirely of CGI but then marketed as “live action” and criticized for just being a 3D CGI animation, seemed to cross into the ‘uncanny valley’ for viewers. In this case, the CGI hurt the film. The lions looked too realistic. The lions talking felt unnatural. Seeing ALL the animals talking felt unnatural. The setting looked realistic and viewers enjoyed that, but because the animals looked too real from the CGI, the viewers were taken out of the film and were unable to escape into the film’s world. They could no longer pretend that this film wasn’t a work of fiction based on a Shakespearean play; the use of CGI played with their sense of reality and the talking animals were the final straw. Adding to the fact that people could easily compare the film to its hand-drawn animated counterpart, the CGI looked overdone.
The use of CGI is tricky. On one hand, it is an incredible technological advancement that should, theoretically, help filmmakers find even more creative and inventive stories to utilize this tool. On the other hand, if CGI is not used correctly, it can hurt a film. As animation continues to rely on 3D CGI as its main tool, studios have to be careful. The story needs to be up to the standard that audiences have come to expect from studios like Pixar and Disney so that the CGI does not overwhelm it. But, if a film looks THAT realistic from CGI, maybe it’s better to try to find a balance between real life, 2D animation, and CGI.