Welcome back to Quoth the Raven, where I talk about all sorts of topics including – (show thumbnail) oh god. Okay. I’m not even gonna bother with an intro…
The term Uncanny Valley was first used in print by Masahiro Mori in 1970 in a robotics paper, and refers to the effect created by something that looks human, but isn’t quite there, making looking at it an uneasy experience for the viewer. Its first use in English was by Jasia Reichardt in 1978. While its original use was in the field of robotics, the uncanny valley can be used to refer to a lot of other humanoid things that are capable of being eerie, like dolls or anthropomorphic animals. And it’s the last one I want to focus on for the rest of the video, because, well, it’s becoming more and more relevant.
Anthropomorphism most commonly refers to characters with a mix of animal and human characteristics, though it can also just refer to things in general with human traits like emotion. This concept has existed since the beginning of civilisation and can be a really effective method of getting ideas across. In the case of animals especially, certain associations with those animals mixed with human emotion and relatability is a great characterisation tool. Saberspark is a YouTuber I watch a lot of, and he does a great job of explaining this effect in his own videos, and I’ll link to them in the description. One example he uses is Disney’s Robin Hood, in which the classic characters are embodied by animals evoking their core traits, such as foxes being seen as sly or lions as emblematic of royalty. He does a way better job of explaining, so please check his videos out.
In addition to movie characters, there’s also stuff like mascots, deities, and video game characters that come under the banner of animal anthropomorphism. But the thing about giving a nonhuman character humanity is that it’s very, very, very easy to get wrong. An imbalance of emotions, appearance, or personality can pull any unsuspecting character right into the uncanny valley. You don’t need me to explain how stuff like this (Robin Hood/Zootopia lions), this (Aristocats), or this (Catra) works, or why this (Sonic) doesn’t – and a lot of it comes down to the animation or setting style and how balanced emotional range and character designs are, not only in comparison to real life but to other characters in the setting, both human and animal. For example, The Lion King 2019’s failures, which I’ve already ranted about at length, actually come into the uncanny valley – Simba’s bounciness in the Hakuna Matata scene totally goes against the hyper-realistic feel of the movie design, making it a little weird to watch. This is a very subtle example of the uncanny valley though, and honestly – after I saw what I’m about to remind all of you of – I feel like I owe Jon Favreau an apology.
The Cats Trailer. I wanted to gouge my eyes out. You know what it looks like? (Laughing) It looks like… That Cat in the Hat movie? With Mike Myers? Except worse. Way worse. Like The Cat in the Hat only has one abomination, and that abomination is a lot furrier than most of the characters in the Cats movie. And what is Idris Elba doing here? I lost my mind when I first saw this. I’m pretty sure that when they first adapted the source material for Cats into a musical, they weren’t expecting people to make this. Like, who approved it? I’m sorry I just – when I said in my last video that I wanted emotive felines I did not mean this. (Laughing) I take everything back, I’m so sorry.
But let’s try to unpack it. The film adaption of the hit famous musical Cats is coming to theatres this holiday season, and I just want to say upfront, I haven’t seen the original musical – though I really want to – and I definitely don’t want to see the movie version. It’s probably not best practice to keep judging movies before I see them, and it’s definitely worth checking out reviews by people who have or will have seen them. But right now I just really wanna rant.
But, I did some background reading to fill in what I didn’t know, because you know, my ranting needs a little bit of substance. The original Cats musical was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on poems by T.S. Elliot, and it premiered in 1981 on the West End. It’s the sixth-longest running musical in the West End, and fourth-longest running on Broadway. It’s comprised of two acts, and instead of following a complex story, focuses on dance, singing, and the stories of the individual cats of the Jellicle tribe, all of whom are trying to be chosen to be reborn into a new life. It was a box office hit, being the highest grossing musical of all time until 1994 at $2 billion, and the original London production received mostly raving reviews with an average of 4 out of 5 stars.
It was actually adapted for film back in 1998 at the Adelphi Theatre, being cut down and recorded without an audience.
But let’s get back to the CGI cat in the room. Something that my mum said to me when I went wild about the trailer at her stuck out to me, and it was confirmed by one of the reviews I read on the Wikipedia page, was that when people go to see Cats, one thing that really sticks out to them is the costuming. It’s fantastical. A lot of handiwork goes into the stage costumes that allows the characters to all look unique, while not compromising the actors’ ability to dance. The cat motifs are hand painted! Anyway, the costumes don’t try to look realistic in any way, and the focus is on setting the characters apart from each other and balancing the human aspects of the performers with the feline traits of the characters. It can look a bit weird, even Uncanny Valley-ish, if you don’t consider it through the lens of being a goddamn stage musical where cats sing about reincarnation through the Heaviside Layer. You know, in the atmosphere.
My point, after all this, is that – like with all the other emoting felines I mentioned earlier – style plays a big role. Because you’re viewing humans in cat wigs and unitards on a stage, it’s easier to suspend disbelief, and the Uncanny Valley is a bit more out of reach for those of us who enjoy their fair share of anthro cats in animation and theatre. (Someone tell Catra I love her). But when you get rid of most of the costuming, and replace it with (laughs) (digital fur technology) – you can say bye-bye to the Heaviside Layer, and hello to the dark depths of the Uncanny Valley.
But why does it look so bad? To me, it falls into the Uncanny Valley in much the same way as The Lion King 2019 did, but just…. Even worse. The thing these movies seem to have in common is that they both try to look hyper-realistic even though their original versions were reliant on style and suspension of disbelief. Hyper-real animation and CGI augmenting are, of course, meant to make the characters and settings look totally realistic, but because of how the characters should be emoting like humans, or in Cats – are actually humanoid – it’s confusing and unsettling. In The Lion King, it’s only a case of dull, emotionless animals who happen to bounce around, but in Cats, the entire design falls into the uncanny valley. You’re meant to register these things as realistic, but that just makes them look like abominations. And I think one of the reasons they look so unreal and real at the same time is that they’re not furry enough.
And speaking of furry, I found an article where – the Metro actually interviewed furries for their opinions on the trailer and. I have mixed feelings about the furry community (start: show Catra, ‘ok I’m slightly a furry’) depending on what part of the community is in question, to be honest, but the ones interviewed for this article really managed to put my thoughts into words. It begins with this magical header, and uh… This opener.
“The trailer for the big screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic Cats has dropped, and with it, comes many questions. Why do the cats look like that? Why is Jennifer Hudson’s face floating on a feline? Why do the cats have ears and a tail, but also breasts and human hands? Why do the male cats all wear clothes while the female cats seemingly only have fur? And most importantly – what do the furries think?“
It goes on to explain the subculture as a community interested in anthropomorphic animals, sexually (the bit I have some issues with) or non-sexually, and it’s a pretty decent summary. A dude with a werewolf fursona named Cole commented that “the fur technology is…a bit of a let down. I’ve definitely seen better CGI effects, and some of the design choices are really, really weird. It’s fallen into the uncanny valley, they didn’t lean hard enough into the animal features … and I feel like the concepts would have benefited from properly mixing the cat vs human anatomy.”
Cole, quoted in “‘Why didn’t they mix animal and human anatomy?’ What the Furries think about that Cats trailer.”
Thank you, Cole, for articulating things a little bit better than me. Other people mentioned in the article commented on how the movie would maybe benefit from full on stylised animation or, you know, people in costumes. They also talked about how furries have a ton of artists and animators within their community who could have done a much better job on the design front, and it was kind of interesting to read that perspective to be honest. I’ll leave a link in the description.
In the end, I honestly do not care if you like the remake of The Lion King, or think the Cats trailer looks good. I may have a slight background in animation and art analysis but that doesn’t make my opinion much more valid than anyone else’s; beauty and art lie in the eyes of the beholder. My personal opinion is just that things that fall into the Uncanny Valley or do a disservice to what made the source material good – aren’t very good, and these kinds of remakes seem pointless and unusual to me. There’s something lacking in designs that attempt to emulate real life but get rid of emotion and style in order to do it. And also, I hope you guys appreciate how many screenshots of the Cats trailer I had to save for this. It was painful scrolling through them and having to edit them in.
That’s all I have to say for this one – thank you so much for watching, and have a good day.
1: Margaret Ruse, “What is Uncanny Valley?,” WhatIs, last updated February 2016. https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/uncanny-valley
2: “Anthropomorphism,” Psychology Today, accessed July 30, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/anthropomorphism
3: Saberspark, “What the HELL is Sheep and Wolves?,” October 12, 2018. https://youtu.be/5o6v8RBdlS8.
4: Trope Anatomy, “Uncanny Valley and Photorealism: The Lion King (2019),” July 20, 2019. https://youtu.be/BCZOZsY11-Y.
5: Wikipedia, “Cats (musical),” accessed August 2, 2019.
6: Wikipedia, “Cats (1998 film),” accessed August 2, 2019.
7: Wikipedia, “Cats (musical).”
8: Dan Robitzski, “‘Digital Fur Technology’ will turn Taylor Swift into a Cat,” Futurism, July 18, 2019.
9: Emma Kelly, “‘Why didn’t they mix animal and human anatomy?’ What the Furries think about that Cats trailer,” Metro, July 19, 2019.