This week sees the New Zealand release of Disney's new live-action version of The Jungle Book, a pretty awesome family-friendly movie, enhanced in no small degree by the insanely realistic CGI (computer generated imagery) renderings of the various animal characters that so famously populate Rudyard Kipling's iconic stories.
It's often much harder for audiences to suspend their disbelief when viewing artificially-created versions of real-life animals due to our experience and familiarity with how they appear and move. Somewhat perversely, we are more likely to believe in the reality of a fantastical monster created with less care.
Capturing the indefinable yet unmistakable qualities of nature's most impressive creations has long remained just out of reach of the technology. Until now.
The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau exploits the transcendent imagery on display in multiple ways - the animals function both as fully-rounded characters whose actions drive the plot, and as unnervingly-convincing blockbuster eye candy.
From the low, predatory gait of Shere Khan the tiger (voiced by Idris Elba) to the rolling fat of Baloo the bear (Bill Murray, pitch perfect) to the lumbering, ominous heft of the enormous King Louie the orangutan (Christopher Walken, eerily appropriate), the animals in The Jungle Book are next level impressive. And they talk, too. Which somehow doesn't undermine their impact at all.
There have been some significant advancements in how CGI portrays real life creatures over the past few decades, but The Jungle Book represents a watershed moment for big screen beasts. Nothing will ever be the same again. A live action version of George Orwell's Animal Farm can't be all that far off now - that has 'summer blockbuster' written all over it. I also think it's time the technology was employed to make a film based on those paintings of dogs playing poker.
To mark this turning point in modern cinema, I shall cite here the five most impressive big screen CGI beasts that came before, leading up to the game-changer that is The Jungle Book.
5. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park (1993)
Nobody has ever seen an actual dinosaur in action, so this entry kinda contradicts my thesis stated in the second paragraph, but few would argue against this landmark achievement's inclusion on this list. And dinosaurs really did exist and maintain a presence in the contemporary world both as objects of historical fascination and via their various relatives that still walk the earth. Including the ones that we love to deep fry in hot oil.
The CGI shots of the T-Rex (life-sized models were also used, marking JP as the transition between two schools of special effects) succeeded so well because they spoke to the audiences' innate understanding of how such a creature might move if we were to actually see one. And it felt like we did.
4. Caesar (Chimpanzee) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
You will believe a monkey can emote. As in its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and also as in number 2 on this list), Caesar's ground-breaking digital presence was both technically stunning (the advancements in CGI eyes and hair-generation is what really made these films possible) and emotionally charged thanks to a motion-capture performance from one of the nascent artform's pioneering exponents, Andy Serkis, who happens to be currently directing his own mo-cap-centric adaptation of The Jungle Book, now due for release in 2018.
With the rapturous reception to Disney's take, Serkis has his work cut out for him, but if anyone's up for the task, it's Gollum. Studio backers Warner Bros. don't seem to have quite as much faith in their first-time feature director (Serkis shot second unit on The Hobbit and runs his own motion-capture studio) as it was just announced that Serkis will be getting some assistance in the matter from Oscar-winning Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón.
3. Richard Parker (Tiger) in Life of Pi (2012)
When the visually lush Life of Pi was released, the animals it presented were so impressive that it was tempting to view the film as the dawn of a brand new era for CGI animal characters.
The Jungle Book has instead cemented Life of Pi's status as the final note of the previous generation of digital effects. As impressive as Richard Parker is, there's a considerable leap from the CGI tiger we see in Life of Pi to Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.
2. Kong (Giant Gorilla) in King Kong (2005)
Granted, the real-life creature being represented here is a whole lot smaller in real life, but the raw animalistic authenticity that oozes from Peter Jackson's Kong cannot be denied. The amount of work that went into making Kong a character instead of a monster is evident in every aspect of his sublime execution.
His pronounced majesty, savage wrestling skills and earned empathy make him the greatest gorilla ever created for the big screen, including those seen in the Apes reboots.
1. The Bear in The Revenant (2015)
Considering that Baloo the bear is the animal we spend the most time with in The Jungle Book, it makes sense that director Jon Favreau has admitted to paying particularly close attention to the now infamous bear attack scene in the frontier adventure tale that won Leo the Oscar. It's an instantly iconic set-piece that projects the heavy, wet menace of a protective mother bear with heart-stopping verisimilitude that never abates throughout the excruciatingly long shots utilised to portray the attack.
The bear itself isn't quite as digitally polished a rendering as the animals in The Jungle Book, but the effect here is just as powerful, if not more so, thanks to the panicked, haphazard nature of the attack and the decision to shoot the harrowing scene from the victim's point-of-view. Just in case you were worried, Baloo does nothing along these lines in The Jungle Book.
• Which big screen beasties do you think are the best? Did you also have Cub Scout Troop-related flashbacks while watching The Jungle Book? Comment below!