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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: 10 of the best (and worst) CGI animals on film


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The first teaser trailer for Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a testimony to how far special effects in movies have come. Everything from CGI to animatronics is becoming so advanced that animals in movies are becoming more detailed and believable, interacting with their human co-stars in ways not possible before.

Now is the perfect time to explore some of the best instances of creating animals for the big screen, before shining a light on some of the more… below par creatures in the movie animal kingdom.

The Good:

The dinosaurs - Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

The original Jurassic Park (1993) is celebrated as marking a major step forward in visual effects, several leaps beyond a guy in a rubber dino suit. It’s a legacy continued in the latest entry, Fallen Kingdom. The prehistoric beasts have never looked more real and convincing. The brilliant shot in the trailer of the Mosasaurus coming through a wave is the best example of how not only is the CGI work impeccable, but the creatures are blended fantastically into the environment. All the dinosaurs feel like part of this world, which is central to the film’s message.

Shere Khan – The Jungle Book (2016)

Disney were a bit hit-and-miss with their live-action adaptation of their 1967 animation classic (were the songs really necessary?). What almost everyone was raving about, however, were the special effects, culminating in an Oscars win last year. All the animals in the movie were stunningly rendered, but Shere Khan deserves a special mention. Terrifyingly lifelike, you feel the atmosphere in the film tighten and unsettle whenever he appears. The detail on him is magnificent, everything from the various scars and mutilations to his blinded left eye. Combined with Idris Elba’s voice, this evil kitten stands proudly among Disney’s finest animal creations.

Richard Parker – Life of Pi (2012)

Sticking with tigers, Richard Parker in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a jaw-dropping example of computer animated realism. All the scenes where Pi is trapped in the boat used a CGI tiger, with real tigers only used for reference points and the occasional scene. The tiger is pretty close to faultless in its presentation. You forget that it’s almost all cinematic trickery. It means that all the terror, hope and eventually friendship that Pi experiences while he is out at sea is also felt by the audience. At no point – despite the fantastical story – does it feel like make believe.

The Fenris Wolf – Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Some CGI creatures though are meant to be deliberately make believe. Easiest way to do that? Make them big. So was the thinking behind the Fenris Wolf in Thor: Ragnarok. In Marvel lore Fenris is a descendent of Loki, but here she is a loyal pet of Hela, the God of Death. If you don’t like dogs, look away… It is gargantuan, and like everything in Ragnarok is a sight to behold. The fight with the Hulk is one of the most intense (if short-lived) scraps the Marvel Universe has ever had. Not one for Dogspotting.

Caesar – Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011, 2014 & 2017)

No article about CGI can exclude Andy Serkis – the man who has made motion capture his forte over the last twenty years. In Caesar, you find his finest achievement. Caesar is an astounding creation. He is so expressive, demanding empathy. This is so important for movies like these when the animals are meant to have believable relationships with the humans – be they friendly, hostile or a mixture of both. The success of the visual effects team here is a resounding one, and one of the reasons why the reboot of this franchise ended up being such a success. 

The Bad & The Ugly:

For every pinnacle scaled by the movie industry, there are many more ugly trenches that even the professionals fall into. Here are some of the more B-list examples of animals on the screen.

The velociraptor dream – Jurassic Park III (2001)

While the Jurassic Park visual effects team normally excel at making dinosaurs look lifelike, they have an elephant in the room. That elephant is shaped like a velociraptor in Dr Alan Grant’s nightmare. The vicious killer here looks like a model with a moving jaw– you can readily imagine the little stick used to move its mouth. Its hilarious. If you want to trigger a fit of giggles in any of the franchise’s fans, go up to their ear and whisper “Alan”. It’s a joke compared to what the series normally delivers. So tragic, all you can do is laugh.

Mega shark munches on a plane - Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)

Need more be said? A shark takes a break from sparring with its humungous, eight-legged enemy to leap thousands of feet into the air and bring down a passenger jet. Yep. If you’re having a so-so day and need a good laugh, this is the ticket. The bland dialogue and ‘aerial footage’ at the start sets the scene perfectly and them… wham! You are left reeling at the sight of this low budget superpowered predator. It’s a diabolical offence against movies that makes Sharknado look like Avatar – and that’s exactly why it’s worth a peek.

Samuel L Jackson is eaten – Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Poor visual effects don’t come more infamous than this… and surprise surprise, it’s a shark again. Samuel L Jackson is giving a rousing speech to his co-stars, as he often does, when what looks like a mannequin of him is eaten by an obviously fake shark coming out of fake water and leaving a fake pool of blood in the water afterwards. It is strangely brilliant; simultaneously one of the best and worst character send offs ever. Jaws (1975) was made 24 years earlier and looks infinitely more realistic than this pitiful attempt at marine life.

Monkeying around – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

If you ever played in a jungle adventure play set as a child, you might be mistaken for thinking that this is how the backdrop for Mutt’s Tarzan sequence in Doctor Jones’ horrific fourth outing was made. Instead, you are looking at the combined creative prowess of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Soak it up. Everything from the monkeys to Shia LaBeouf’s massively exaggerated swings contributes to the constant head-shaking that manifests whenever Crystal Skull is on. Thankfully Harrison Ford did not have to witness this repeated with ewoks when the new Star Wars movies came out. Mind you, that would be funny.

“Han, ma boogie” – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1997 Remastered Version)

Don’t think, though, that Star Wars escapes scrutiny. In the 1997 remastered version of A New Hope, originally released 20 years earlier, there is an added scene where Han meets Jabba the Hutt shortly after his encounter with Greedo. This is not the foul smelly Hutt that audiences would later meet in Return of the Jedi (1983). Instead, this Jabba looks deceptively, uncomfortably smooth to the touch. Like a fat snake. It looks like he was taken from a completely different movie and simply thrown in. Say what you like about the remastered versions as a whole, but perhaps George Lucas should have left Jabba be.

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