I caught up on some films this weekend, and interestingly all three films featured - and relied on - heavy use of computer effects to create not just special effects but also actual characters.
I found "Oz The Great and Powerful" a nice example of director Sam Raimi's work. Many of his films seem to feature an under-achiever who is expected to step-up his game and become the hero the other characters need to survive; "Spider-Man" especially comes to mind. "Oz" is no different, as James Franco plays a Kansas con-man whisked away to Oz, where he is mistaken as a great Wizard who will save the good people from the wicked witch (and her increasingly more powerful sister). Oz must first convince himself he can be that savior, helped along by Glinda the good witch and an assortment of interesting sidekicks.
Sam Raimi has his stamp all over the look of the film, from the compositing and layering of images to the framing of action sequences. It feels like a Raimi film - I even thought of "Darkman" while watching certain sequences. And because it's a Raimi film I got carried away by the energy of the storytelling, and over-the-top performances, even if it did become a bit cliched near the end.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" doesn't have the gravitas of "Lord of the Rings." Bilbo goes along on a quest as something of an unwanted side-kick. The dwarfs he's tagging along with don't think he's much of an asset as he can't fight. Of course he eventually gets the Ring from Golum, a blade that glows around Orcs, etc. and he saves the dwarf king and saves the day, setting up the second film.
It was fun! I watched it with my 6 year-old and he was engrossed in the battles, the scenery and Bilbo's journey. In a lot of ways this felt like part of a serial. There's little overly dramatic or complicated about this tale, but the adventure makes it a fun experience.
"Ted" is basically a "Family Guy" episode with different characters. It became unexpectedly sappy at the end, as the magical bear tries to patch up the relationship between his "boy," Mark Wahlberg, and his girlfriend, Mila Kunis (who interestingly plays the Wicked Witch of the West in "Oz"). I laughed hysterically at the Sam Jones "Flash Gordon" bits. The rest of the gags were hit or miss, like much of "Family Guy."
What these films all have in common (besides Ms. Kunis in two of the three) is fully formed, computer generated characters. "Oz" featured a computer generated talking glass doll, a wisecracking flying monkey, and a Wicked Witch; "The Hobbit" has trolls and orcs; and "Ted" has a wisecracking teddy bear. The Wicked Witch had the toughest time of portraying real emotion, I think, because it's trying to incorporate Ms. Kunis' actual emotions. It's still easier to create an animated character, like a teddy bear of porcelain doll, that we can connect with than it is to create a "realistic" person - like the witch - that is completely realistic. The evil White Orc in "The Hobbit" sneers and snarls, but he isn't really human.
Other attempts at animated main characters haven't fared well, but I expect to see it soon. A full cast of computer generated characters that look "real" probably isn't too far away. But looking at these three films it's clear that films can succeed with these "fake" characters as long as there's real emotion.