Sunday, February 07, 2010

No Acting Nominations For Avatar: Here’s Why

Think fast: Name the male or female lead from the movie Avatar.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to pretend that I knew the answers either. The answer are Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.

Now join me as I cry my eyes out over the fact that neither of these talented people were nominated for an Academy Award for Avatar. Wait. I’m not crying. Why am I not crying? The answer is that I was not sad that the cast of Avatar was passed over for acting Oscars and I am not surprised either.

I am going to bring up two characters from previous movies to make a point about mixing acting with animation. The first character I am going to bring up is Jar Jar Binks from the first prequel to the Star Wars series. Jar Jar Binks was the first fully animated CGI character in a live-action movie. He did not look like a cartoon interacting with humans like the characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Instead, he looked like an alien that would interact with humans. We not only heard his voice, but could see his personality in his physical actions. While Jar Jar Binks was complete CGI, his actions were not based on the movements of an actor. This is different from the characters in Avatar, who had sensors placed on their faces so their real acting ability would be translated into movements on film. This method has been done before with the performance of Gollum by Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings films and by multiple performances by Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.

When I think of the character of Jar Jar Binks, while I deeply hated the character, it felt like I saw more of a performance in the non-performance of Jar Jar Binks than what I saw from any of the actors in Avatar whose performances were covered by CGI. The truth is that besides the voicework, none of Jar Jar Binks was a performance at all. His actions were completely designed by CGI animators.

When I look at the performances of the actors covered by CGI in Avatar, I really believe that the heart of the matter is that the performances themselves did not appear to be difficult. It felt like I was watching actors who were fitting into roles that did not require much character development. The character of Jake Sully did not seem unique at all. There was nothing special about Sam Worthington's performance. The character of Neytiri by Zoe Saldana seemed to be based on Native-American stereotypes. I cannot say that Zoe Saldana is a bad actress. I think that she was asked to perform her character in a way that did not make the performance look impressive. I really believe that the key to the performances not being nominated for Academy Awards is that they were not great performances.

The second character that comes to mind is also not a performance at all. In 1992, I saw the movie Aladdin by Disney. This was a pure two-dimensional cartoon. One of the characters, the genie, was voiced by Robin Williams. The genie character did many imitations of celebrities and characters throughout the movie. Robin Williams was able to voice those characters because he is very talented in performing imitations. The audience knew that Robin Williams did the voice of the genie and they could see his personality in the character, although the only thing that Robin Williams provided to the role was his voice.

Avatar could have had great performances by actors who were under the CGI effects, but the film did not include great actors or decent character development. Let’s say one of the characters who was hidden under CGI was played by Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, or Al Pacino. We may be able to recognize the voice and personality of the character, leading to our ability to judge a familiar actor without seeing his face directly. That is something that is completely missing from this film. We have nothing to truly judge the actors by because the leads in the movie were played by C-List actors (who will probably be A-List actors soon, due to the success of Avatar). Without seeing distinct personalities, the audience saw actors merely fill the roles in the film.

Overall, I cannot blame the Academy Awards for Avatar receiving no Oscar nominations for the acting categories because the performances were not that special. There are a few films in which I can say that the director is the star of the film. This is one of those situations in which the true star is the director, James Cameron. His success with Titanic gave him the financial clout to make a film with such a high budget and so ambitious with using new technology. James Cameron is a true innovator in the film industry. Two times, he went “all in” to make a film, and won. Had Titanic been a failure, it would have been very hard for him to ever get the financing to make another big-budget film. Titanic became the highest grossing film of all time. Had Avatar failed at the box-office, he would have thrown away the clout that he received from the success of Titanic. In the end, only he was able to make a film that could actually earn more money than Titanic did. The true star of Avatar is James Cameron and he has three Oscar nominations for the film.


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