In “A.I.” we had a real boy, Haley Joel Osment, playing a robot. In this movie, we have computer animated figures playing real people. This is the first computer-animated movie to “star” actors. Instead of giving us glossy surfaced-toys or imaginary ogres, this movie gives us human characters, with pores in their skin and beard stubble, and they are so real that at moments you can forget that they are made up of pixels and not DNA.
Those are usually moments when they are not talking or expressing emotion. The movie’s effects work best when the “actors” are moving, because their movements are based on that oldest of animation techniques, rotoscoping (real actors act out all the movements for the animators). The characters’ movements do not interact with their environments very much, but since this is science fiction and they are sometimes weightless anyway, it is not as much of a distraction as it could have been.
They do less well when it comes to talking and, well, acting. While leading lady Dr. Aki (voice of Ming-Na) may have more facial expressions than some real-life actors (Monica Potter, for example), the very realism of the features underscores the disparity between computer animation and real life. In more standard animation, the conventions allow for a level of exaggeration and omission that allows us to project human-like reactions onto a character like Buzz Lightyear or Simba. But when we see something with so little difference from humans, it just makes clearer how important that difference is. Movie fans might also find it distracting to hear such instantly recognizable voices (James Woods, Ving Rhames, Peri Gilpin, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland) coming from faces so incongruously different from our associations. The dog Baldwin voiced in “Cats and Dogs” seemed more suited to him than this Ben Affleck-clone of a leading man.
Still, the technology is stunning. The monsters are extraordinary creations, somewhere between dinosaurs, dragons, jellyfish, and squid. A scene with a soaring eagle is breathtaking, genuinely touching. The post apocalyptic-settings are complex and believable. The dialogue is passable, delivered with panache by first-rate talent (Buscemi, as always, is a highlight). The problem is the script, which reads like a Pokemon reject, confusing gibberish about the earth’s spirit that does not do justice to the beliefs of environmentalists or pantheists.
Parents should know that the movie includes brief strong language and extreme prolonged peril, with the violent death of many major characters.
Families who see the movie should talk about whether the vision of the future it portrays could possibly become reality, and about how the discoveries of important scientists have been considered heretical. They may want to talk about the motivation of the General. Was he just acting out of rage at the loss of his family?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Star Wars – Episode IV, A New Hope… trilogy and might like to see the first major studio science fiction movie, Forbidden Planet to compare the technology and the ideas of that era with ours.