A few days ago, I was watching a YouTube clip from Wired featuring Danny Diaman and Josh Beveridge, animators and effects artists responsible for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While I wasn’t as high on Spider-Verse as its many fans, there’s no denying that it’s one of the most distinctive-looking animated films in years.
That clip – How Animators Created the Spider-Verse – highlighted just how that look was achieved. Two pieces of information resonated with me. The first was how the film’s powerful scene of Miles Morales accepting the mantle of Spider-Man high above the streets of New York was achieved through a cityscape revoking realism. The computer models to create the scene required “an exaggeration of scale and light” that captured the immensity of Morales’ decision through evocative visuals. Similarly, the animators spoke of how their characters’ expressions were most believable not thanks to carefully-rendered 3D models, but the simple addition of a line in the right place on someone’s brow.
That popped into my mind as the lights came down for Disney’s remake of The Lion King. This version of the familiar Disney vanity card featured the iconic castle surrounded by animated countryside and illuminated by hand-drawn fireworks. Like Spider-Verse, those fireworks reminded me of the joy inherent in unrealistic animation. They didn’t move or glow like real fireworks would, but the wonder they possessed emulated the spark of seeing real fireworks light up the night sky.
All of this is to say that I was certainly preconditioned not to like Jon Favreau’s “live action” take on The Lion King. Beyond the obvious motivating factors – read: $$$ – there are good reasons to remake any film; a chance to reinterpret, a chance to showcase new talent, a chance to find new layers in a celebrated text. However sceptical I might be about the “brand extension” driving remakes like Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, they added something to the original films beyond new actors.
The Lion King adds nothing. All it does is subtract.
It’s not that there aren’t elements to praise. But the “live action” – again with the inverted commas, because pretty well everything here is generated by a computer – animation loses the vitality that galvanised the 1994 original. The near-photo-realistic animals aren’t inherently better or worse than cartoon characters, and you can adjust to some of the limitations (as with any animated film, the clumsily of the lip-syncing wears off after a few minutes).
But so much is lost. The ability to emote is reduced substantially, forcing characters’ connections to lean heavily on the dialogue and the film’s (incredible!) score. The movement lacks fluidity; constrained by ‘realism’, an apparently fearsome stampede is rendered sedate by the reduced density and speed of the wildebeests. Realistic? Maybe. But we don’t go and see a Hamlet adaptation starring African animals for realism. Colour bleeds out, too; outside of a mid-film interlude with Timon and Pumbaa, there’s a homogeneity to the look. Favreau could maybe have elevated this with splashes of expressionism or interesting framings; instead, we’re treated to three musical sequences staged as mid-paced walks through the wilderness.
That Timon and Pumbaa sequence is unquestionably the film’s highlight; up until that point, I admit I feared that I would nod off. It’s more colourful, more joyful, more exuberant than the scenes that surround it. That’s in part because it’s a departure from the seriousness of the Shakespearean storyline, but I mostly credit it to Billy Eichner’s work as Timon, the wisecracking meerkat. Not only is Eichner the rare actor to make his role feel alive – bouncing easily off Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa and Donald Glover’s Simba – he’s aided by an animal with big expressive eyes and human-adjacent features. It’s almost like we go to the movies to relate to the characters; I dunno.