While theater audiences reacquaint themselves with the characters of Disney’s The Jungle Book, in the new CGI-laden remake from Jon Favreau, the use of computer generated imagery has become a topic of conversation once again. Ever since CGI appeared in the film industry, it has been a lightning rod for criticism, both positive and negative.
There are few, if any, human CGI characters that have been celebrated, likely due to an aesthetic theory known as Uncanny Valley. UV hypothesizes that when robots or CGI characters approach the true likeness of humans, there is a drop-off point, and then observers become repulsed or simply creeped-out by the almost-but-not-quite-human characteristics. However, CGI does allow film creators to portray that which doesn’t exist in a far more realistic manner, often with captivating precision.
There’s always been some resistance to CGI. In fact, in 1982, TRON was ineligible from receiving an Academy Award Nomination because it was believed that using computers was essentially cheating. Even today, there is a very thin line between great CGI and awful CGI. With unconvincing imagery, not only will a film risk ridicule in its current age, but it’s shelf-life will be terribly short as well. Bad CGI is hilariously cringe-worthy, but bad CGI that is dated is something altogether different.
Despite all of the goofy examples of bad CGI, there have been moments of sheer brilliance as well, with computer-aided films and characters that still work today, in some cases, decades after they debuted. Here’s a list of the 15 best CGI movie characters of all time.
15 Wall-E – Wall-E
Building a silent animated movie is a daunting task, but the team at Pixar were able to pull it off beautifully with their smash hit Wall-E. Humans have the ability to emote and converse in a number of ways without speaking, but having a silent robot captivate and endear himself so fully to the audience is really quite amazing. Every piece of the surrounding world and the atmosphere needed to be perfect in order to properly communicate the message that the movie was trying to send, and it really was nearly perfect. Regardless of the similarities in appearance between Wall-E and other movie robots, there really is no short circuit in this robotic gem.
14 Godzilla – Godzilla
In terms of scale, history and reputation, the re-imagining of the classic monster Godzilla may have had the biggest shoes to fill. All things considered, the team at the Moving Picture Company met the challenge extremely well, creating a monster inspired by the komodo dragon with insanely detailed textures and hand-animated movements. Despite the outcry from fans about the little screen time for Godzilla, the little that we do see of him is enough to show how incredible he really is. Its enormous 350-ft frame, more than double the size of the original, and its blood-curdling roar made for a well-received return for the iconic Godzilla, and one that will definitely be remember as one of the finer CGI moments in history.
13 Draco - Dragonheart
In some truly astounding CGI work from Industrial Light & Magic, Draco, the Sean Connery-voiced dragon from Dragonheart, has long been considered a major accomplishment for CGI characters. Over 20 years later, the Scottish dragon still works, even though the movie itself may be a tad silly. The team at ILM also used Sean Connery’s facial expressions to animate Draco’s face, which matches with his recognizable voice, lip curls and speech patterns. The end result is part-hilarious and part-amazing, but altogether list-worthy.
12 T-1000 – Terminator 2
Half CGI liquid metal, half Robert Patrick, T-1000 has been awesome for over 25 years. Like nearly every CGI character in Hollywood, T-1000 was designed by the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic as an upgrade to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, and oh, sweet Jesus was he ever. He had super sweet knife and hook arms, impeccable running posture, and could take a shot to the face better than Dick Cheney's hunting partners. Simply for being miles ahead of his time and competition, T-1000 makes the list, but go back and watch the movie, this villain still looks flawless even with today’s advanced technology and our modern critical gaze.
11 Transformers & Decepticons – Transformers
With 4 completed films and about 11 more to come, many fans are tiring of the Transformers franchise, but that shouldn’t take away from the amazing CGI accomplishments it's achieved over the course of its run. Industrial Light & Magic, the VFX team that basically has a monopoly on CGI, has even described Transformers: Age of Extinction as their biggest film to date, and that’s not even because of the excruciatingly long runtime. Yet despite the head-scratching plot logic and unabashed use of explosions and slow motion, Transformers has some of the best CGI there is. Even though it can be difficult to track the fight scenes at times, the transformation sequences are astounding and the attention to detail is on another level.
10 Shrek – Shrek
Shrek is often forgotten about in the CGI discussion, but the crass Dreamworks Animation character definitely earned his spot in this list. With vibrant, colorful artwork, great attention to detail and some of the best animated settings in film, Shrek was launched into popularity with both children and adults. Voiced by Mike Myers, Shrek was a huge hit, hilarious and something entirely different than everything that had come before him. Instead of simply standing up to its gigantic Disney and Pixar competitors and flexing its muscles, Shrek openly mocked them, kicked sand at them and laughed in their faces.
9 Smaug – The Hobbit
Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit, was so highly anticipated that it could be argued that he didn’t quite live up to expectations. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he is by far the best film dragon ever made. Aided by the motion capture movements of Bandicoot Crumblesnacks, Smaug was the brightest CGI moment in a set of films criticized for its heavy-handed effects approach. Created by Weta Digital, his wet fire, glistening scales and incredible facial expressions (as well as the serpentine voice of Butterscotch Chowderpants) made Smaug the best CGI dragon in the world, and despite all the haters, a no-brainer in the top 15 best CGI characters in film.
8 Caesar – Planet of the Apes
Created by Weta Digital, the character of Caesar in both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the most realistic CGI ape ever built. Telling the story almost entirely through his expressive face and soulful eyes, Caesar is as close to human without being human as a CG character can get, and maybe that’s why he was so well received. What’s more is that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is widely considered to be an excellent film led by a character that audiences can connect with, the ultimate proof of Caesar’s great effectiveness and believability.
7 The Hulk – The Avengers
While the CGI for the Hulk in the earlier standalone movies was both good (Edward Norton) and bad (Eric Bana), the version of the Hulk from Joss Whedon’s Avengers is far and away the best of his incarnations. Built by the team at Industrial Light & Magic, the Hulk is almost exactly what a hulkified version of Mark Ruffalo would look like, even down to his fingertips, pores and teeth. All of his motions and expressions are replicated from Ruffalo and the results are stunning and uncanny. Considering what the Marvel fan outcry would be if even a strand of hair was out of place, the positivity surrounding the Hulk is proof that he was and is a thing of CG beauty.
6 Neytiri – Avatar
When James Cameron and Weta Digital sat down to unintentionally recreate Pocahontas, they knew it was going to be a huge task. In fact, Cameron had the ideas for this film years before its actual making, but he needed to wait until the camera technology caught up to his brain. To create his vision, Cameron developed a new type of motion-capture as well as a new stereoscopic 3D camera. In the end, the phenomenal sights and sounds of the movie made it the highest grossing film of all time, even with an overly bland and well-trodden storyline. If nothing else, the off-putting sexual appeal of Zoe Saldana’s character Neytiri has given fan fiction authors plenty of inspiration for their weird stories.
5 Davy Jones – Pirates of the Caribbean
By far the best thing about Pirates 2 & 3, the character of Davy Jones is an awesome achievement in film CGI. Built by the team at Industrial Light & Magic and led by the motion captured performance of Bill Nighy, Davy Jones and his amazing octopus-like tentacle beard is super realistic and super gross. While there are certainly many faults in the Pirates movies, the design team is far from being one of them. Both Davy and his sea-encrusted band of pirates make for some of the more realistic portrayals of CGI movement and motion in history. The painstaking detail in every element of Davy Jones’ design make him extremely memorable and a shining light amidst fun but fairly ordinary films.
4 T-Rex – Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park is one of the few movies from the early days of CGI that will almost certainly withstand the test of time. The movie has so much good going on that it’s difficult to highlight only a few areas, but if you had to, the amazing CGI by the Industrial Light & Magic VFX team would have to be the main one. These imaginative CG dinosaurs have had such a massive influence on the public that, right or wrong, most of our collective dinosaur knowledge comes from these movies. For instance, everyone now knows that a velociraptor’s main weakness is getting kicked in the face. Honestly, go back and watch how many raptors get kicked in the face, all sorts of kicks too: laying down kicks, roundhouse kicks, and even well-choreographed gymnastics bar routine kicks.
3 King Kong – King Kong
Winner of the Academy Award for best VFX in 2005, King Kong set records with its massive $200+ million budget, and the title CGI character did not disappoint. There are some CG scenes in the movie that have not aged as well, namely the stampede scene, which is a little rough around the edges, but King Kong himself is a masterpiece. This King of Kong is so realistic that even Naomi Watts’ character falls for him in a very questionably beastialic way. But, since it’s been said that one should never hate the playa, King Kong will be remembered only for being awesome, and awesome he most definitely is.
2 Woody and Buzz – Toy Story
This list would be incomplete without the first-ever fully CG movie Toy Story, and its main characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Coming off some success from their animated short Tin Toy, Pixar was asked by Disney to create a feature that was similar but more Disney-ish. The result was a movie that most kids from the mid-90s could recite start to finish, while their parents silently mouthed the words in the background. Considered by many to be the best animated film of all time, the creative process involved in bringing it to life had epic proportions. In the end, the film had more than 100,000 animated frames which required over 800,000 machine hours to complete, a truly amazing process and result, and one of the most influential films ever made.
1 Gollum – The Lord of the Rings
No surprise really that Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy is number one on this list. Quite possibly the most beloved villain in one of the largest and most successful film franchises of all time, Gollum is without a doubt the best CG character ever designed. The success of Gollum is a combination of amazingly lifelike CG work from Weta Digital and the unbelievable performance of the multi-talented Andy Serkis. Using motion-capture, the movements and facial expressions of Serkis were able to be transplanted onto Gollum to create one of the most realistic and creepy characters ever seen on screen.