Robert Zemeckis Helped Revolutionize Visual Effects – and Then Visual Effects Ruined Robert Zemeckis

Nine days before Halloween 2020, with very little pomp or ceremony, the streaming service HBO Max released a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel The Witches for the hopeful viewing pleasure of its subscribers. The film boasted Academy-Award winning talent both behind and in front of the camera. Playing the Grand High Witch, that nefarious sorceress who wants to turn the children of the world into mice, there was Anne Hathaway chewing the scenery up and down with a blonde wig and an accent located somewhere north of Transylvania. As a feisty grandmother, there was Octavia Spencer dishing out tough love with some CGI mice hanging around her jacket pocket. 

But you can be forgiven for missing out on The Witches. This film, like so many others in 2020, was originally intended to be released theatrically before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and upended the plans of so many mice and men. Instead, at the beginning of October, HBO Max announced the arrival of The Witches to its streaming shores and then, poof, there it was. Watching The Witches is a traumatic experience. For the 1990 version directed by Nicolas Roeg, it’s traumatic because the film’s special effects, camera tricks, and Anjelica Huston performance scarred so many children. For this version, it’s traumatic because the film is…well, pretty terrible. It’s worth noting here is that the remake came from a pretty impressive source behind the camera, making the film’s poor quality all the more frustrating: Oscar-winning writer/director Robert Zemeckis.

It’s a song you’ve heard before, though, with Zemeckis: a filmmaker so focused on the perceived possibilities of special-effects technology that he misses the CGI forest for the character-driven trees. Zemeckis’ career is defined by his adoration of technological breakthroughs, but it often has come at the expense of good filmmaking. Here’s the rub: it all started with what is arguably the best film he’s ever made, and arguably one of the most important and influential films of the last 50 years: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Saying that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a masterpiece is a pretty uncontroversial cultural argument to make. Though it may have some detractors, the film’s place in modern popular culture is stronger than ever. The 1988 film asked more of its actors, including the masterful Bob Hoskins, than previous special-effects extravaganzas may have, simply by asking them to act opposite animated characters who would only exist in the post-production phase. But the difference is that Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn’t hinge entirely on dazzling its audience with technological tricks. 

One of the film’s most effective moments is dialogue-free and has no moving animated characters. It’s an expository tracking shot as we watch the hungover Eddie Valiant (Hoskins) sleeping off a rough night of drinking at his desk in the seedy detective agency he runs in Hollywood. Hoskins says nothing, but we learn much about Eddie’s past life as a cop and the heartbreaking loss of his brother to a murderous Toon. It’s up there with the opening-credits tracking shot of Back to the Future, where we learn through background details about Doc Brown before we even meet Marty McFly or learn of their strange friendship.

The success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, coupled with the Back to the Future sequels, led Zemeckis largely down a computer-generated path that’s afforded him – for the most part – the ability to pursue whatever passion projects are in his head. Since the last Back to the Future adventure, Zemeckis has hit some major highs. Forrest Gump won Best Picture, among other Oscars, and was a wildly popular film in its own right, becoming as unavoidable as a pop-culture reference machine as anything else he’s made. Contact and Cast Away both do a much better job of balancing an effective story with effective trickery. (The latter, of course, relied heavily on the physical transformation of Tom Hanks, but…well, it helps if you’ve got Tom Hanks as your leading man on a deserted tropical island.)

But there’s a flip side to this, starting with the 1992 black comedy Death Becomes Her. The film has its defenders (and is still mordantly funny in spots), and unlike many special-effects-laden films of the 1990s, this one holds up pretty well. The very premise of the film all but assured its eventual Best Special Effects Oscar: two rivals (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) take an immortality potion that comes at the cost of their personal lives and eventually their physical bodies. Some of the effects here are still ridiculous to behold nearly 30 years later. But the toll was obvious on the actors, including Streep. At the time, she said, “You stand there like a piece of machinery—they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it’s not fun to act to a lampstand.”

It may not be fun for actors like Streep, but it’s fairly common among Zemeckis’ future films. Gump, which has become a bit more divisive over time in spite of its initial success, isn’t just a decade-spanning adventure in which its title character floats along like a white feather (the opening shot is itself a “Hey, look at this!”-style CG trick). It’s a film in which Zemeckis got to show off special-effects tech that allowed Hanks to seemingly interact with real-life figures like John F. Kennedy. The tech ends up feeling like an effective demo for future use instead of a natural part of a story.

The true low point of Zemeckis’ fascination with technology was in the mid-2000s with a trio of motion-capture-animated films that range from disturbing to terrifying. A number of high-profile actors signed on to help bring his warped visions to life, from Hanks to Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins to Jim Carrey. And yet The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol are among the most uncomfortable films released by mainstream studios in the last 20 years, entirely because while motion-capture technology can be convincing and successful at creating depth and emotion, it can also send you straight to the uncanny valley. (Basically, if your name isn’t Andy Serkis, and you’re doing mo-cap, you’re playing a dangerous game.)

Each of these films was intended to make a very specific case for the viability of motion-capture technology as another animation option aside from hand-drawn, computer, and stop-motion. And each of these films failed at making that case. There was no reason to make these films in this way, and any time human characters appeared on screen, it became viscerally clear what the limits of motion-capture animation are. If you watch The Polar Express, there’s a telling scene that itself feels like a tech demo. The little boy who serves as the protagonist wants to hand a golden Polar Express ticket to a friendly little girl so that the conductor (Hanks) can stamp it. But the ticket accidentally slips out of the very speedy train, and then we follow its journey outside, in a scene that feels like a repeat of the feather in Forrest Gump. The ticket floats to the ground, is trampled on by wolves, regurgitated by a bird, and eventually winds back up in the train. The majority of the tracking shot is almost hypnotic…except when humans are depicted on screen, when it’s hard to think of anything other than how unnatural they move, walk, and talk.

After his motion-capture films became so toxic that even Disney rejected an attempted mo-cap version of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, the last decade has been spottier for Zemeckis. But there’s still a clear sense of him being most compelled by which experiments he can try to pull off. With Flight, he tried (and was mostly successful) to replicate the terror of a risky aircraft landing a la the daring Hudson River landing by Chesley Sullenberger. With The Walk, he wanted to visualize the real-life sight of an acrobat walking on a tightrope wire between the two World Trade Center buildings in the 1970s. And now, with The Witches, he wants to show off what it looks like when human faces get ever-so-slight grafted onto the bodies of CGI mice.

Part of the problem with the new Witches is that anyone with enough memory of the 1990 film will be unable to stop thinking about how this fails to even match its uniquely horrific take on a battle between children and witches. It’s easy enough to decry the use of CGI over the use of more practical effects, as was the case with the Nicolas Roeg film employing Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. But the problem isn’t so much the CGI as it is the way CGI is applied to a story that does not require it. No doubt, the artisans who worked on the stretched-out mouths of the witches – whose fangs become more pronounced when the scars on the sides of their lips turn into sharp-toothed smiles from Hell – worked their asses off. The problem is what they were told to do, and why Zemeckis ever thought it would be a good idea.

There’s a lot of that in The Witches, a lot of wondering who thought it would be a good idea to…well, for example, show CGI mice dancing to “We Are Family”, the kind of immensely depressing thing to even write about let alone watch. Why would it be a good idea for us to behold the sight of Stanley Tucci being bitten in the crotch by a CGI mouse? Or for the final battle to be between CGI mice and a gross-looking CGI rat? And so on. Considering that Zemeckis is a credited co-writer with Kenya Barris and fellow Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, it’s real easy to wonder what this film’s writing process even was. But Zemeckis won the day, letting computers do the talking. 

He’s let computers do the talking for the last three decades, to withering and diminishing returns. It all started with the sight of an animated rabbit talking to a grouchy director at the start of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That movie is brilliant beyond words, and it’s the kind of movie that needs special-effects wizardry to achieve its creative goals. But too few of Zemeckis’ other films need special effects. He’s just become so besotted with them that he’s sacrificed creative quality for a CG approximation that will always feel hollow and lifeless.

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