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Opinion: James Dean’s CGI return to Hollywood is damaging to celebrity licensing’s integrity

For a number of years I had wrestled with the feeling of unease around the licensing of dead celebrities. While the attraction of much of this industry is the creativity that fizzes around innovative IP, this was a pocket of licensing that always seemed to me, cynical.

It wasn’t until I sat face to face with Janie Hendrix, the sister to and estate director of Jimi Hendrix, during a trip to Las Vegas that I managed to reconcile the nagging doubt that licensing of a dead celebrity was anything other than a cash cow, but actually, a way of managing and preserving the legacy of some of the world’s greatest icons.

When it’s done well, and with the integrity of the artist and fan at heart, it can be a great thing; the incredible efforts for empowerment by the likes of Frida Kahlo or the hundreds others that have managed to maintain artist creativity, being fine examples.

This week, however, the negative feelings towards celebrity licensing came crashing back, when it was revealed that James Dean was to be raised from the dead and brought back to the screen, in a completely new role, through the use of CGI.

Broken by The Hollywood Reporter, the news is that Dean, the icon of Hollywood’s golden era, and star of 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden has been posthumously cast in a new Vietnam era action-drama called Finding Jack.

The project comes from the filmmakers’ own production house Magic City Films, which obtained the rights to use Dean’s image from his family. Together with the Canadian VFX banner Imagine Engine and the South African MOI Worldwide, the team will re-create a ‘realistic version of James Dean’ for a supporting role in the narrative.

Leaving aside the preposterous idea that Dean would settle for anything other than lead just for a moment, there’s a far bigger conversation to be had. 

I am all for the progressive use of technology to push the boundaries and uncover new uses of modern day licensing. The idea that we’ll soon be able to wear a VR headset and be transported to a post-WWI Britain to stand face to face with Peaky Blinders ringleader, Thomas Shelby is enough to fill anyone with excitement. 

Meanwhile, over the past few years alone we have seen the successful implementation of classic, retro characters such as He-Man and Skeletor, to carve out a new lease of life in modern day advertising campaigns.

Moreover, at Licensing Expo this year, I was thrilled to test out ABG’s newest audio AR technology that placed me right in the middle of Elvis’ recording studio, allowing me to wander around the various band sections, while the King belted out Suspicious Minds just for me. 

Each are masterful examples of how technology and innovative concepts are being used to great effect in progressing the use of licensing today. I just can’t help but feel that this new endeavour to cast an actor dead 60 plus years in a new role does anything but bastardise the whole progressive movement.

Granted, the film’s directors have made the usual statements of intent. They are of course ‘honoured’ to be handed the rights and will take ‘every precaution to ensure that Dean’s legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact’, presumably all while they rub their hands together at the chance to puppeteer such a cultural icon.

Finding Jack will be live action, while Dean’s performance will be constructed via full body CGI using actual footage and photos, but another actor will voice him. 

Actually, this is nothing new. Disney did after all get there first when it reconstructed Peter Cushing in CGI for a reprisal of his role as Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. The difference being, of course, that Cushing had already donned the outfit, affected the character and played the role some 40 years previously. 

One has to wonder what Dean would make of being cast in an entirely new role more than half a century after his own death, let alone how he would act the part – had he been around in the physical form to actually fill it.

That said, this is the actor who did famously say “I think there is only one form a greatness for man. To me the only success, the only greatness, is immortality.”

But at what cost will it come? To quote the actor Chris Pine’s reaction to the news – can we now digital paint a new Picasso, or write a new song by John Lennon?

Where immortality springs, sadly, I for one, think this is where integrity dies.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent some six years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@bizmedia.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobHutchins3 if ranting is your thing...

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