Fly, CGI Dumbo, fly!

Harriet Metcalfe considers how CGI has impacted the role of animals in film.

Harriet Metcalfe
23rd May 2020
Technology has developed a lot since the early days of cinema. We've got space films not made in space (although even that might be about to change), and films with dinosaurs millions of years after they went extinct (although can we all agree now that opening a dinosaur park is not a good idea). Love it or hate it - CGI is everywhere.

And thankfully, CGI has saved the welfare a lot of animals. There's been some shocking scenes involving the abuse of animals in movie history - Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) includes a ritual sacrifice of a water buffalo, for example. Many film buffs will hail this as an intertextual reference to Sergei Eisenstein (the Soviet filmmaker who basically invented the 'montage' sequence) and his 1925 film Strike, which includes scenes of a cow being slaughtered. Whilst Eisenstein and Coppola might argue that the shock factor of something so brutal happening on-screen adds meaning to the film overall - I find it hard to believe that there weren't other ways to do this, even in the early days of cinema.

Someone tell Coppola to "Take the flower by the thorns" instead, please.

Thankful CGI has meant that no film studio now has such an excuse for animal abuse

But Coppola was only 'let off' with such a scene since they were filming in Vietnam and technically didn't need to obey America filming laws. Thankful, CGI has meant that no film studio now has such an excuse for animal abuse, otherwise I'd image Planet of the Apes would've been a lot harder to film. And it's actually proved that an emotional gut-punch is possible - the animals don't have to be real. A lot of people (fairly) argued that 2019's CGI remake of the classic 1994 animated film The Lion King was a cash-grabbing scheme, which, because it was made by Disney, worked. But I felt something different about Mufasa's death when he look that real. In the animation - the fantasy of the story was more obvious - yet all this remake that looked insanely real? Jesus. As a kid who got scared watching A Bug's Life (1998) - that probably would've wrecked me more than it did when I was eighteen.

The 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, might have had some bops - but it was a very forgiving portrayal of the Circus owner P.T.Barnum. In the film, he was presented as loving towards the crowd of 'outsiders' (bar one scene where he doesn't let them in the after-party of upper-class audience members). In reality, he was a pretty horrible man, against animals and humans. As one article by The Guardian put it:"To really do Barnum’s story justice, they would be better off making a horror movie." One PETA article even claims that "Barnum essentially founded American Circus cruelty". It would've been a much less PG film if they'd shown all that - and probably not as successful. So cue the singing and dancing instead.

They're not going to get away with Eisenstein and Coppola levels of chaos against animals - and I can only think that's where CGI will come in.

Given the success of Netflix documentary series Tiger King meaning that (if everyone's ideas go ahead), we're probably about to get a boatload of new scripted Tiger King TV shows and films. But since the shock factor of the tigers was a big reason behind the shows popularity, dangerously mixed with the chaotic figure of Joe Exotic, how are studios going to handle that? A scripted show is very different from a documentary where they let the cameras roll and see what happens. Studios, execs, directors, actors - they have to take a lot more responsibility for what happens on set. They're not going to get away with Eisenstein and Coppola levels of chaos against animals - and I can only think that's where CGI will come in.

In any case, there does need to be a level of precaution about the content they're making, and the audience they're making it for. Just because CGI is more realistic than ever, doesn't mean studios should abuse that power by continually representing the mistreatment of animals on screen.

But whatever you think of computer generated animals on screen, it's fair to say that Tim Burton's CGI remake of Dumbo (2019) just didn't take flight at all...

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AUTHOR: Harriet Metcalfe
English Literature BA student. Loves film, TV, books and coffee. Thinks "Thor: The Dark World" gets too much hate. Twitter: @hattiemetcalfe

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