No One Can Get Over the Uncanny Valley of Ben Platt’s Evan Hansen
Reviews for Dear Evan Hansen have been largely negative, with some critics calling out the film for its depiction of mental health and a protagonist who uses a teen’s suicide for his own ends. Others have enjoyed the movie regardless. People have different opinions and that is fine! But nearly every article (and many a tweet) mentions discomfort with how old actor Ben Platt appears in the lead role. This seems a near-universal sentiment, even as his vocal performance is praised.
Platt burst into Broadway stardom playing Evan in the stage musical (and winning a Tony for it) when he was 23. He’s now 28, and having him revive the high-school-age part would seem to be the movie’s most glaring misfire. Reviewers and audience members can’t get over how out of place Platt looks and have found that it further upsets the already upsetting narrative.
The production’s decision to try and render him more youthful backfired spectacularly. After an onslaught of bewildered press and elaborate jokes, the movie opened with a disappointing $7.5 million at the box office, unable to dethrone Shang-Chi from its #1 spot.
Many teenage roles are played by adults. We’re asked to suspend our disbelief, and such age discrepancies don’t get in the way of enjoying something silly like Grease (Olivia Newton-John was 29 and Stockard Channing was 33) or something soapy like the original 90210 (most of the cast was in their mid-to-late 20s).
But the solemn tone and unsettling subject matter of Dear Evan Hansen make the title character and his actions stand out all the more, and the production also took pains to try and have Platt look and act like a teenager. He’s given messy curly hair and wears facial prosthetics and a lot of makeup; several reviews also cite exaggerated “teenage” physical mannerisms like hunched shoulders and quivering lips. Contrast Platt’s movie appearance to how he was styled in the stage show era:
It’s those production choices that are causing widespread dismay, with “uncanny valley” referenced in regards to Platt’s Hansen across the Internet. When someone on Twitter made a well-crafted joke (complete with an entirely fake news story) that the movie intended to release a CGI “de-aged” version of Dear Evan Hansen after the raft of criticism, it seemed plausible enough that many took it for a real announcement.
so this really is just going to be this year’s CATS isn’t it pic.twitter.com/ZOKLbS5pb0
— Wyatt Duncan Idaho (@WyattDuncan) September 10, 2021
What is the “uncanny valley,” you ask? It’s regarded as a phenomenon wherein the attempt to render a robot or computer-generated figure as truly human in appearance “arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.”
Basically, the more something we know to be artificial is made to try and appear lifelike and “real,” the more dissonance we feel when we look at it. Knowing that Ben Platt is ten years older than Evan might be fine if the movie didn’t try so hard to make us believe that he is actually 17. Instead of being convinced, we feel uneasy about the artificial representation.
Oh man. Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen gives me extremely Polar Express-level Uncanny Valley vibes in spite of him being, evidently, an entirely real person.
— Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn (@Trungles) September 10, 2021
Below, I’ve sampled from several reviews and articles and brought you the ways in which people have described what it is to watch Ben Platt play Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, the movie. From “like somebody has tried to draw a human face on a thumb” to “an interloper oddity from some other-world,” here are some choice descriptives of the situation.
Watch the trailer alone and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a film about a dangerous pervert with a pathological desire to pose as a child, or a grown man hired by the government to infiltrate a school and tacitly teach the students about the lingering spectre of death.
[…] There are loads of children, and then a disastrously de-aged adult hoofing around in the centre of them looking like somebody has tried to draw a human face on a thumb. It’s horrible.
First, the decision to have Ben Platt reprise his Tony-winning performance as Evan Hansen in the film, the only original cast member to do so. (It seems relevant to mention that Platt’s father is a producer on the film; as Platt said earlier this year in defense of the casting: “Were I not to do the movie, it probably wouldn’t get made.”)
[…] the team behind Dear Evan Hansen put Platt in prosthetics and opaque, pasty makeup, along with a curly mop of hair, that strands the actor firmly in the uncanny valley. But the attempt to make Platt seem younger somehow renders him both older and inhuman – an act of near-sabotage so distracting it basically renders the movie unrecoverable.
In the film version of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt’s face is a problem. From his first close-up, his is undeniably one of a full-grown man, who has been comically miscast as a sheepish teen boy. No slouched shoulders or downcast eyes can hide that.
[…] Platt performs youth earnestly but unconvincingly. This is a huge problem, because without the constant reminder that Evan is young and thereby deeply naïve, the character comes off as heinously selfish.
To be sure, there is some definite Steve Buscemi with a skateboard energy to the way Platt hunches his shoulders and quivers his lip, attempting to mimic high school awkwardness and appearing just awkward. However, you don’t need to be John Travolta or Olivia Newton-John to lull an audience into a suspension of disbelief. No, the issue with Dear Evan Hansen is a tone deaf and wall-to-wall cringe of a plot that somehow got a pass on stage.
[…] That insistence in grounding this in a visual verisimilitude—wherein the clear intent is that this will be seen as an important movie, the kind that wins awards—poorly serves the film’s lead performance, with Platt at times looking like a sweatier version of Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: the old guy cruising for high school girls. But it also exposes the saccharine limitations of the narrative.
Since the film’s trailer debuted last spring, much has been made of the fact that star Ben Platt — the only cast member to reprise his role from the stage, where Evan Hansen debuted to great acclaim in 2016 — now appears slightly too old to convincingly play a high-school senior. This is like saying that the cats in Cats look slightly more humanoid than my sister’s cat, Jill.
It’s true, but it undersells the sense of physical revulsion just a tad. What’s disturbing about Dear Evan Hansen is not just that the 27-year-old Platt is unbelievable as someone ten years younger. It’s that all the film’s efforts to transform him into a plausible teenager have the reverse effect of making the character of Evan Hansen appear to be somewhere in his mid-40s. When he gets up onstage for the second act’s big musical number, I wasn’t sure if he was going to memorialize his dead classmate or speak on the importance of 401(k) matching.
Platt is also quite visibly in his late 20s, a far cry from the shivering, barely adolescent pipsqueak Evan is supposed to be. Chbosky and the hair, makeup, and lighting teams can’t do much to cover up that fact, rendering the film’s central character as an interloper oddity from some other-world.
The thick makeup and bizarre hairdo along with the mannerisms Platt has chosen make his sing-acting appear deranged.
The depths of failure here are difficult to overstate, beginning with bringing Platt back to the role he originated on stage despite his age. A choice whose wrongness should have been obvious on sight alone – or a screen test at the very least – but only gets worse given the style of performance.
Costumed like a geeky middle-schooler from the ’80s in a manner only a Broadway audience could find convincing, Platt attempts to appear teenaged and awkward in outright theatrical style, hunching his back, clutching his limbs, walking and running with stiltedness turned to eleven.
[…] It’s hard not to feel bad for Platt, too, watching a perfectly fine performer struggle against the queasy absurdity of the material and his role in it at this late stage.
[…] there’s no amount of suspension that’ll lift anyone to the disbelief of Platt being a teenager. His very build and frame, especially his jutted winged shoulders, is that of a grown man. The one added benefit he brings is his malleable voice, a vehicle with the ability to discover pockets of hard-fought warmth where only cold suspicion exists.
Platt’s vocal performance might soar, but his choices are not merely overwrought; there are an assemblage of tics and jitters that’s often played for laughs rather than real pathos.
Platt’s hunched-over, sad-eyed physicality is constantly and overtly pronounced. It unnecessarily draws more attention to the fact that a 27-year-old is playing a teenager. Platt’s larger-than-life affectations may have worked well for the stage so the audience can see Evan’s intense social anxiety, but on screen, Platt’s darting eyes are far too creepy to portray the shy, kind teenager the audience wants to root for.
Not everyone was so negative about Platt in the role or the movie as a whole. In fact, in a review entitled “Dear Evan Hansen Walks Through the Uncanny Valley, Ascends Anyway,” the excellent Vulture critic Helen Shaw finds that Platt-as-Evan’s incongruous appearance works well to remind us how jarring his actions are:
Comparisons to Pat from SNL’s “It’s Pat!” and the child impersonator in Orphan are not wrong. I might add that Platt’s Evan Hansen looks like Fred Armisen in any sketch in which Fred Armisen is trying to seem extra naïve and creepy.
And, sorry, but I’m sort of into it? […] the actual content of the musical is distressing, messy, full of psychological manipulation and passive aggression. It’s therefore kind of … useful that we have to struggle to reconcile Platt’s angelic sound to his waxwork face. When the movie Dear Evan Hansen adds dimension to the stage version, it does so by working against the original’s platitudes and giving more weight to its inherent brutality. The musical’s sometimes-smeary qualities are burned off by the sheer weirdness of Platt’s attempts to “act” away a decade of human aging, which are exaggerated, sometimes to the point of comedy.
I think Shaw makes some extremely valid points in her review and I’m glad to hear that there are other elements of the film that she enjoyed. She praises the production as a whole and the talented cast, which other reviewers have similarly highlighted. But I also think it’s rather generous to imagine that the filmmakers had in mind that we would be so put off by the uncanny appearance of Platt’s Evan and ran with that intentionally.
“That magnetic, musical pull toward Evan is at work in Chbosky’s movie version,” Shaw writes, dissecting how Evan’s behavior, which “verges on sociopathy,” is softened in the musical by the power of song and stage drama. “But now the pull is coupled with a powerful push — in other words, repulsion — that keeps us from being seduced.”
This is very true, and it’s also a glaring difficulty that many a musical has in making the jump from stage to screen. Behavior that is excused by the medium of theater—we already have to suspend our disbelief and enjoy people breaking out into song about their emotions—doesn’t always fare as well under a zoomed-in close-up and more time spent trying to render the characters as, well, fully human.
Still, it’s difficult to suppose that the pushback to Platt’s “teenage” Hansen was part of the plan all along. After all, Platt himself has been quite adamant in stating that the movie likely would not have been made without him.
“I think the reaction is largely from people who don’t understand the context of the piece — the fact that I created the role and workshopped it for three years,” Platt said. “Were I not to do the movie, it probably wouldn’t get made. And so, I think, my defensive response is to want to go onto Twitter and be like, ‘F you, guys. You don’t even know that this wouldn’t exist without me.’ Of course, that’s not true entirely and not my place to say. All I have to do is let the work speak for itself.”
people are overreacting about Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. he looks totally normal in this scene pic.twitter.com/6ewjO1h1FY
— Jeremy Kaplowitz (@jeremysmiles) September 19, 2021
(images: Universal Pictures/screengrab)
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