On Sunday during the Grammy Awards, Disney stunned (or horrified) viewers with a new teaser for Aladdin, its upcoming live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic. Succeeding Robin Williams for the role of the blue genie is Will Smith, whose face appears to be superimposed on a buff CGI body.
Whether Aladdin will really be bad enough to “kill” Disney’s pattern of live-action remakes remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that Smith has made Aladdin an early front-runner for the Most Uncanny Valley Movie of 2019.
The “uncanny valley,” coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, is a phenomenon in which the lifelike realism of an object (typically a robot or humanoid subject) is almost too real, that it is perceived to be eerie, strange, and disturbing.
Ever play a video game with realistic avatars or see one of those robots in Japan that just barely look human? You’re in the Uncanny Valley.
And Will Smith as the Genie — given his realistic body, realistic face, and even hearing his familiar, Will Smith Voice, but in an over-sized blue package that is clearly computer generated — fits the bill for the Uncanny Valley.
If you’ve already heard of the Uncanny Valley, it’s probably because you’ve heard it in the context of Hollywood movies. A handful of films exist as textbook examples of the Uncanny Valley, some resulting in poor box office returns (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) or an expensive production process to reanimate characters after children reportedly cried during test screenings (Shrek). Other films that exist in the spectrum of the uncanny valley include The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), Mars Needs Moms (2011), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).
Some of the most successful animated films of all time, including ones with “human” characters, also look the least “real,” such as Disney’s The Incredibles (2004), Frozen (2013), Coco (2017), and the How to Train Your Dragon series.
Disney’s Aladdin is the latest episode in an ongoing modern phenomenon as CGI technology evolves and animators have to learn and relearn the process with every passing generation. Until there’s perfect harmony between an aesthetically pleasing look with exceptional realism, filmmakers will just have to do their best to not make kids cry in the theater.
As for the Genie, there’s still hope that the final movie could feature better CGI than the buff Blue Man Group Will Smith revealed in this new trailer. But for the moment, it’s not looking good.
Aladdin will be released May 24, 2019.