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Jul 3, 2013 — Pt – 2b Digital Graffiti – Jar Jar (continued)
Much has been written about Jar Jar. His character is so universally reviled that I cannot add anything to the conversation. Besides, the point is not to bash Episode I for being an awful film – in fact, I do not hate the movie. Rather, the movie has set numerous precedents that have been imitated countless times that have hurt popular filmmaking.
The problem with Jar Jar is not merely the performance, the limitation of the digital animation technology at the time, or the dialog (though these are all factors). It is that we are expected to accept a photorealistic cartoon character in a world that is supposed to be realistic. Cartoons and real actors have mixed before, sometimes to great success such as in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by Robert Zemeckis (though his later digital photorealistic animation excursions of Beowulf, The Polar Express, and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were all terrible).
Digital animation not intended to be photorealistic can be wildly effective, critically and financially. Consider Toy Story, the first feature length all CGI film. Released in 1995 (four years before Episode I) Toy Story demonstrates a fully realized digital world and has characters who can show emotion and can also gain the sympathies of their audience. Now look at the critical and financial failure of the photorealistic animated film Final Fantasy: Spirits Within from 2001 ($137M production budget; $32M domestic gross).
The juxtaposition of a realistic animated figure next to real actors in a serious film (or one that is intended to be taken seriously) very rarely meets with success. With the exception of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings series, I cannot think of another character. [In fairness, the digital Yoda featured in Episodes II and III is much better done and more understated than Jar Jar Binks – with the exception of the climactic battle between Yoda and Count Dooku in Episode II … but that is a tale for another day.] This phenomenon is called the “uncanny valley” and it basically says that we can accept something artificial that is not supposed to look realistic, but when something that is knowingly artificial comes close to looking realistic, we shun it. It seems more unnatural and lifeless, like a zombie.
Would filmmakers have attempted to push the limits of digital animation to create a CGI character if not for George Lucas? No doubt they would have eventually. In fact 2002’s The Two Towers that featured the breakthrough performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum was well into production, though concurrent filming on all Lord of the Rings films did not begin until October 1999. Jar Jar merely lowered the bar for digital performances. He was such a maligned character that almost any fantasy creature would be less annoyingly offensive. Toby Jones’ Doby the House Elf from 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets or Seth Rogan’s Hogsqueal from 2008’s Spiderwick Chronicles are muted and nuanced performances compared to Ahmed Best’s Jar Jar.