Digital Fur, Digital Folks: Reality Is Starting to Feel Overrated

If the historians of the future try to pinpoint the exact moment when the term “digital fur” became ubiquitous in our culture, they might eventually identify the evening of July 18, when the “Cats” trailer premiered online just as the first public screenings of Disney’s “The Lion King” remake were unspooling across the country.

Here were two state-of-the-art endeavors, using computer-generated fur — by all accounts an enormously difficult and time-consuming special effects undertaking — toward extremely different ends. On one side was a new version of a 1994 animated family classic that had been digitally engineered to look like a real adventure set among real lions in a real, albeit unidentified, stretch of Africa. On the other, a bizarre trailer for a surreal musical, set at night in an imaginary city, featuring real actors and singers and dancers (Taylor Swift! James Corden! Judi Dench!) as cat people traipsing around in human-ish bodies covered in seemingly real fur.

And while “The Lion King” has become a gargantuan hit, many critics find themselves wondering what’s ultimately so special about a movie that tries to weld the original’s “Hamlet”-by-way-of-“Bambi” melodrama onto something that, after all those effects, looks as if it could just be another wildlife special (though one with a higher budget than the company’s own DisneyNature documentary series). “The Lion King” seems diminished when it enters the real world — even if that world isn’t technically real at all — perhaps because it’s not actually meant to be a story about lions, but an allegory about people.

To be sure, hype about special effects and fancy new technology has always been used to sell movies, an art form that itself started, after all, as a fancy new technology. But the carnival barkers of yore promised us wonders we’d never witnessed before, even if they didn’t always deliver on that promise. Today’s carnival barkers allure us with, well, things we see every day. I’m reminded of all those tech “disrupters” who keep reverse-engineering things that already exist.

To that end, Hollywood has been hard at work trying to create photorealistic fake actors who will be indistinguishable from real performers. “Digital humans are often thought of as the holy grail,” the special-effects journalist Ian Failes told me last year. The industry has been laying the groundwork for this with advances in de-aging and other developments, giving us younger versions of stars who are now middle-aged, old or sometimes even dead. This fall, Will Smith will battle a digitally created, time-traveling younger version of himself in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.” The results might be interesting, and the industry will be watching closely.

But even if the film succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, what will have been proven? And will the movie be that much more emotionally engaging than Rian Johnson’s 2012 hit “Looper,” in which a time-traveling Bruce Willis battled a younger version of himself, who was simply played by another actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Somehow, audiences were able to make the imaginative leap required to accept two very different looking actors as the same person at different stages of his life.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will feature Robert De Niro playing a character at multiple points in his life, with de-aging technology used to create a younger version of him. Many of us are understandably excited about De Niro and Scorsese reuniting after nearly 25 years. But it’s also worth remembering that in “The Godfather, Part II” (1974), De Niro himself played a young Vito Corleone, a character made popular by Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” just two years earlier. No computers were required, and somehow, audiences managed to not be confused or bothered by De Niro replacing Brando. One might even say they were enchanted: De Niro won a best supporting actor Oscar for his troubles, and his performance has passed into legend.

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