Sometimes a film's greatest cast members are the ones covered in dots or who are completely absent at the time of filming. Over the last 17 years, we’ve seen some stunning computer-generated characters brought to photo-realistic life leaving us to question if we’re seeing the work of computer effects specialists, or full-blown wizards.
It’s a tough job, but some tech savvy genius has got to do it and the results can stand on the edge of a hard drive. Get it right, and audiences can turn up in droves to see the wonderful work done to bring a fantastic creature to life. Get it wrong, and they can sit in utter shock that anyone actually signed off on the digital monstrosity in the first place.
Below is a mishmash of good, bad and uploaded uglies we’ve witnessed since the turn of the 21st century. Some have ruined films by appearing in them and others elevated the experience by showing their pretty polygon-laced faces.
See who made the cut in 8 Best (And 7 Worst) CGI Characters of the Century, Ranked.
15 Best: Shere Khan – The Jungle Book
Disney has struggled lately to match the level of classic baddies that left kids and grown-ups alike booing at the screen – that is, with the exception of Shere Khan in Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book.
Rather than a reproduction of the stealthy and somewhat eloquent take on the character in the 1967 version, Khan is truly a force of nature from the darkest side of the jungle.
This iteration of the terrifying tiger is brilliant and made all the more unsettling when he opens his mouth and the stern but sultry tone of Idris Elba comes rolling out. When the river runs dry and Khan comes out to enforce the law of the land, there’s very few other of its inhabitants that dare question him. Who would?
Behind that scarred face and photo-realistic fur is a killing machine with a scheming mind that’s working away to rule and do away with man. All entries on this list have amazed audiences, but Khan is one of few that petrifies them in equal measure.
14 Worst: Voldemort - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
As beloved as they are, the early installments of the Harry Potter series don’t stand as strongly as its final chapters. What would eventually become a dramatic, emotional, and well-polished franchise actually got off to a rather ropey start.
The three key cast members who would grow into their iconic roles started as wooden as the brooms they rode and there was also some woeful CGI on display that doesn’t hold up, particularly with The Sorcerer’s Stone and its reveal of the Dark Lord.
Voldemort protruding from the back of Quirrell’s head is just awful. Looking like the Freddy Krueger caterpillar from Freddy vs. Jason, the wizarding world’s most feared villain has all the characteristics of a skin-coloured balloon who lacked the terror the was required of him.
Thankfully, Ralph Fiennes would raise the bar a little higher when he’d make his eventual appearance but there are Boggarts that brought more chills than what was on show here.
13 Best: Hulk – The Avengers (2012)
Among the 16 films that Marvel has churned out since 2008, few got the heart soaring as high as when Earth’s Mightiest Heroes finally united. The Avengers had it all; humor, heroism, and the character collisions we’d waited a lifetime to see. One undeniable highlight of the film however, was as powerful as a dose of gamma waves – they had a Hulk.
Though Edward Norton and Louis Leterrier’s take in the MCU might not have been recognized as much, things changed as quickly as Dr. Banner himself when Mark Ruffalo stepped on the scene and found the time to get angry. The result was the finest iteration of Marvel’s jolly green giant the world had ever seen.
Smashing, crashing and throwing puny gods around like rag dolls, seeing The Hulk take down a Leviathan like he was knocking out a punching machine was worth the admission fee alone. Ruffalo’s Hulk is the strongest Hulk there is, and it’s why we’re so excited to see him go shoulder to reluctant shoulder with the Norse god in Thor: Ragnarok.
12 Worst: Renesmee - The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2
Having spent four films showing ridiculously good looking people smolder at one another, we can only assume that the brains behind The Twilight Saga couldn’t imagine what the fruit of their loins would look like when they eventually broke a bed together. As a result the SFX team were tasked with whipping up a CGI baby, leading to one of the oddest things ever put on screen.
Rather than make the daring move of, say, actually hiring a baby to coo into the camera, a CGI sprog giggles and gurgles in its place failing at the important task of looking remotely real. Looking more suitable in a Final Fantasy game, it would be acceptable for Renesemee to be produced from pixels if she was crawling up walls or hunting local wildlife like her parents, but that isn’t the case.
The only positive about the new addition to the Cullen clan is that she ages quicker than regular humans and eventually Mackenzie Foy steps into the role when they decide its time for an actual human. Parents always complain about their kids growing up so fast, but this is one child we’re happy to see doing so.
11 Best: Smaug – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
As if he wasn’t talented enough, someone went and stuck dots on the otter-like mug of Benedict Cumberbatch and turned him into a dragon. Stalking the sound stage in a skin tight suit, Weta transformed the man behind the world’s famous detective into Middle-Earth’s most feared inhabitant; the hot tempered, gold-obsessed goliath, Smaug.
Though he might not have appeared in the strongest set of chapters from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit-hosted series, he’s easily one of its greatest elements when Bilbo crosses his path in The Desolation of Smaug. Stalking his new pray in a gold pit that would have Scrooge McDuck spitting feathers, it’s one of the rare occasions outside of Westeros where a dragon has been so wonderfully realized.
The added magic however, comes from the fact that Martin Freeman is starring opposite his Sherlock co-star in a completely different way, and still they work wonders — even if one is covered in scales and breathing fire.
10 Worst: The Scorpion King - The Mummy Returns
He might have the body of an action figure, but there was no reason to make Dwayne Johnson look like one that had been left in the microwave for 30 seconds when he was converted to CGI form in The Mummy Returns.
We can appreciate the task of somehow turning the WWE champ into a six legged beast with a sting in his tail being a tricky one, but the laughable sight of The Scorpion King stepping out from the shadows doesn’t deliver quite the intended effect.
The longer you look at this computer-generated goon, the less he shares any comparisons with The People’s Champ. Sure, the eyebrow is there, but he’s a caricature of the genuine article, leading you to wonder if director Stephen Sommers would’ve been better off going for some live-action multi-legged rig with the occasional medium shot of the Rock from the waist up.
Thankfully, even with the spin-off solo film of how The Rock’s Mummy-linked hero got in such a state, Johnson’s career wasn’t fazed by this shoddy CGI wizardry, but it’s still worth a watch to recall a time before he made it big.
9 Best: Calvin - Life
Floating like a plastic bag and killing like a xenomorph from days gone by, extra terrifying extra-terrestrial Calvin gave audiences high levels of heebie-jeebies when he was picked up by the crew of the ISS in Daniel Espinosa’s Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds.
One of the most recent entries on the list, this space jellyfish from hell proved just like countless times before that poking an alien with a stick is the last thing to do on a close encounter.
The research to bring Calvin to life spawned from the thought of creating something that was both plausible and terrifying. This is a creature that doesn’t have character; it’s a growing parasite with the only goal being to survive.
Looking like something between a facehugger and DC’s Black Mercy, this translucent terror is a fully plausible one, which makes it all the more affective.
8 Worst: Skull Crawlers - Kong: Skull Island
This year audiences either beat their chest over the new take on King Kong or threw their poo at the screen in disappointment – there was very little in between.
One thing that fans could definitely agree on, though, is that some inhabitants of Kong: Skull Island needed a bit of work. John C. Reilly called them Skull Crawlers, but the common consensus called them generic and flat-out boring monsters for Kong to pummel into the ground.
When you compare them to the V-Rex in Peter Jackson’s epic take, Skull Crawlers were faceless uninteresting creatures that hardly brought the fear. These biped behemoths were barely distinguishable and as a result, lacked any kind of character in comparison to the other top level inhabitant of Skull Island.
Though there was some background info provided on the monsters, it didn’t feel enough to allow them to stand out from the rest, particularly when you had creative creatures like water buffalo, bamboo legged creepy-crawlies, and a log insect wandering around. When Kong does return to take on Godzilla, our only hope is that he doesn’t bring any Skull Crawlers with him.
7 Best: Rocket & Groot - Guardians of the Galaxy
Undeniably the heart and sharp-witted mouth of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Rocket and Groot also happen to be one of the most wonderfully entertaining CGI characters to appear in film in recent years.
Assisted by the vocal talents of Bradley Cooper, Rocket has a mixture consisting of the snark of Stark, the temperament of Logan, and the heart-melting features of a trash panda. When he’s not spouting scene-stealing lines, he’s having the spotlight stolen by his partner who may lack in vocabulary but makes up for in presence, no matter what size he is.
Adult or Baby, Groot really is an evergreen character and the soul of this family of misfits, sometimes saying all that needs to be said in just three words, courtesy of Vin Diesel. Groot is the tree that keeps on giving and Rocket..? Well there’s nobody like him. These two go together like "I am" and "Groot."
6 Worst: T-3000 - Terminator: Genisys
With the standard of Cameron's iconic franchise plummeting to an all-time low with Terminator: Genisys, the icing on that crappy reboot cake came in the form of a computer-generated Jason Clarke as Skynet, or the T-3000, or whatever the hell he was.
Some may be see that the digitally revitalized '80s Arnie from the original film as the great offense here, but this was, in fact, the one element of the film that played it smart. Reworking a chapter of the franchise that was mainly shot in the dark didn’t bring too much attention to it, but this monstrosity - sheesh!
The latest Terminator to cause trouble and keep Judgement Day on the calendar looked basic, bland and a far cry from either of the original antagonists played firstly by Arnie and then followed up by the piercing stare of Robert Patrick.
This thing is a blend of everything we learned to loathe about the new direction of the series, harking back to the Terminatrix in Rise of the Machines more than anything. Skynet must’ve caught a virus that day this thing came off the line, surely?
5 Best: Dobby - Harry Potter
There’s an array of magical creatures running amok in the Harry Potter series, but none appear to have more heart than the Malfoys' mistreated house elf. Beginning as a jittery messenger of doom for The Boy Who Lived in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Toby Jones' Dobby is the only CGI character that plays such an invaluable part to the battle between the boy wizard and Lord Voldemort. He’s a selfless ally that risks everything to keep our hero safe, even at the expense of his own life.
In a world filled with tormented and treacherous souls, Dobby is an innocent ally who also becomes one of the greatest losses in the war against He Who Must Not Be Named. You’re either a liar or part Dementor if you didn’t well up at the sight of the heroic house elf cradled in the arms of Harry on the beach.
Even with previous fallen heroes like Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black and the great Albus Dumbledore, Dobby’s death still stings like a fresh lightning-shaped scar. He died a free elf and we all wept like babies.
4 Worst: Doomsday - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Dawn of Justice fans, we hear you. We get that the Trinity standing together was amazing – but did they have to stand against such a rubbish-looking turd monster? Like the bastard child of a cave troll and The Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, this thing was another generic CG antagonist in a long line of blockbusters of recent years, lacking any kind of weight or texture to make you concerned for the heroes he was up against.
Following the first glimpse of Doomsday in the trailers, things didn’t look promising. What was wrong with his original design? The grey beast from outer space that was all protruding stalactites and red eyes? Instead this Turtle without a half shell lets off energy but lacked any kind of threat.
Granted he slowly starts to morph into the monstrosity comic fans are familiar with but he’s still part and parcel of precisely what audiences disapproved of in the final act of Man of Steel.
3 Best: Gollum - The Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit
Peter Jackson’s first journey into Middle Earth broke new ground in a dozen different ways, but one of its defining features Gollum,the creature that still captivates audiences even now. The fully CGI character was like nothing we’d ever seen before. This scarred, screaming beast bound by the One Ring wasn’t simply a technological marvel, but a wonderful introduction to Andy Serkis’ capability in a motion capture suit.
As a character built on greed, obsession, and living a pitiful existence, Serkis mustered an array of emotions to bring one of the Ring’s most scarred owners to life. The conversation between Gollum and Smeagol is a true revelation and a testament to the captain of motion capture technology, paving the way for a viewing experience we’d never appreciated to this extent.
2 Worst: The Thing - Fantastic Four
One particular eye sore that stands out from the crowded field of Josh Trank's shocking Fantastic Four is the poorly used and plain uninteresting take on Ben Grimm, aka The Thing. This trash-talking, clobbering-time taker is a favorite character in the Marvel Universe.
In Trank’s retread of the superhero family, The Thing is a prop; a lifeless object and a rarely used one at that who’s as forgetful as every other element in this god awful super turd.
Those ever-loving blue eyes are lost along with his character under what is the laziest construction of The Thing since Michael Chiklis looked like a tanned marshmallow back in 2000. No consideration is made in how he acts, responds, and retaliates when things get ever so slightly tough in the film’s final act.
The opportunity to once again delve into the man trapped inside the monster is cast aside, just like every other interesting factor in the Fantastic Four history that no other film has managed to convey.
1 Best: Caesar - Rise/Dawn/War of the Planet of the Apes
The world scoffed at the suggestion of returning to the Planet of the Apes following Tim Burton’s chimps tea party, then a brief look at an ape with a sliver of Andy Serkis behind the eyes suggested we’d have something different on the cards.
Now three films later and the culmination of his previous experience in bringing fantastic creatures to life and Caesar from Rise, Dawn and War of the Planet of the Apes has become the most charismatic, complex and detailed CGI characters ever to grace the screen.
No stranger to trilogies already, Serkis outdoes his previously precious role and constructs a character whose emotion comes through in every movement, gesture and grumbled word he utters. Never have we followed a CGI character as closely as we have with the lord of the apes.
From lab, to life behind bars, to leading an uprising which led to the descent of our own society, still we can’t help but love him. It’s been long discussed over the idea that Serkis’ roles have been overlooked by the Academy, but War should finally argue the case that he deserves some recognition.
What do you think are the best and worst CGI characters of the century? Let us know in the comments!
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