Disney has been on a trend in recent years with the live-action remakes of their more classic films like Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and now Aladdin. I was just as excited as everyone else when the new Aladdin trailer dropped the other month because I enjoyed The Jungle Book. But the last thing we all expected to see was a swole Smurf with Will Smith’s face awkwardly plastered right on it. It was unnerving, to say the least, and netizens were quick to voice out their revulsion through internet memes. Now, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Why does Will Smith’s genie freak me out so much?” Well, it’s because of a little concept called the Uncanny Valley.
The Uncanny Valley was first thought up by robotics professor Masahiro Mori. He hypothesized that the more something (in his case a robot) looks human, the more positive the emotional response towards it would be. For example, imagine you’re looking at a stick figure. It kinda resembles a person, but in terms of artistic quality, it’s basically at the bottom of the barrel. You’d look at this stick figure and think, “Meh.” But if you add in small details like eyes, hair, a mouth, and maybe a dress, you’d think, “Better.” The more details you add, the better it’ll look and more positive your response to it would be.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “But the graphics on Will Smith look great. Why does it still suck?” Now, hold on, I’m getting there.
Eventually, along the directly proportional relationship between human likeness and emotional response, a dip will come. It’s at this point where you’ve added enough details to make whatever you’re making resemble a human, but not enough to make it unidentifiable from a real person. And Mori discovered this when he attempted to make a human-like robot. He found that adding human-like limbs and LED eyes was cool, but giving them synthetic skin and empty, soulless eyes was just nightmare fuel.
That dip in emotional response is what he called “The Uncanny Valley”. And this is where Will Smith’s genie falls into. The fact that his blue face sits awkwardly on top of a CGI body is enough for our brains to realize that something’s off. He looks and moves almost like a human, but there are just enough imperfections for us to know that he’s not. And because of those contrasting perceptions, our brains just process it as weird or off-putting.
The Uncanny Valley is where the likes of The Mummy Returns’ Scorpion King and everything from Polar Express fall. It’s what happens when you aim for photorealism, but just can’t get there for whatever reason.
One way to get around this is to work on either side of the Uncanny Valley without falling into it. The edge directly before the uncanny is where you would find most cartoon characters. Characters like The Incredibles, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, and everyone from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse all rest comfortably on that edge without falling in. They’re detailed enough to be easily recognizable as humans, but they’re also stylized enough to not be considered weird by our feeble minds.
On the opposite edge, the one that follows the Uncanny Valley is the realm of photorealism. It’s a slippery slope where one false move could spell disaster for your character. It’s not impossible, but very few have made it past the slope to photorealism. This is where films like Avatar (2009), Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (2016), and everything the MCU has barfed out reside in glory.
So that’s that. The next time someone asks you why a CGI character looks weird and unsettling, you tell them that it either looks too good or not good enough.