It did not take long for the memes to follow after Disney released the latest posters for its upcoming remake of The Lion King. The 1994 animated title represented a new peak for the studio during the period known as the Disney Renaissance. Originally pitched as a bit of a back-up movie for the company, who were putting all their hopes on Pocahontas, The Lion King became a critical and commercial smash that out-grossed every other film released that year and to this day is considered a peak in Disney’s history. When Disney began their recent trend of live-action remakes of their animated classics, many joked of the possibility of a version of The Lion King featuring actual wild animals with cameras attached to their heads. How do you recreate that specific magic of the original film in CGI (and why the hell is it still being called a live-action remake?) The trailers are technically proficient and still elicit those nostalgic echoes that are Disney’s bread and butter, but as those posters proved, sometimes being realistic isn’t enough. At what point does an achingly detailed photo-realistic CGI rendering of Simba become just another lion?
These are literally just lions pic.twitter.com/3msWbn6Tmk— Guy Lodge (@GuyLodge) May 30, 2019
This isn’t unique to Disney, of course, but the studio has been particularly responsible for this new descent into realism, or at least this hyper-detailed pinpoint accurate recreation of life that we have declared to be realism. Think of how Cinderella’s anthropomorphic mice simply became mice, or the admittedly stunning animals of The Jungle Book but particularly the grotesque King Louis, or the decision to turn the furniture of Beauty and the Beast into baroque monstrosities that would give even David Cronenberg the shudders. Now we have a cavalcade of wild animals that look pretty damn close to the real thing but there’s still something off about it all.
I admire the boundary pushing work of those animators and special effects teams who are committed to making these stories come to life in a new way. Say what you want about the ultimate necessity of these remakes - and I could be here all damn day having that conversation - but you can’t deny that Disney don’t throw their all into making these things happen. Their motives are understandable too. This is the ultimate form of brand regeneration: Disney for the Marvel age, breathing new energy into well-worn stories and fitting them to new audience expectations. Because the truth is that we as moviegoers have been greatly spoiled over the past decade by blockbusters built on hyper-realism. Avatar hasn’t lingered long in our imaginations since its release but it was still incredibly special to see that environment come to life before out eyes, and to see new creatures look so fully rendered that they blended into our human world. Nowadays, superhero cinema is so rooted in realism that having Josh Brolin play a giant purple super-villain who wears multi-coloured gemstones on his metal glove no longer elicits giggles of derision because damn does he look Real. In many ways, this has been good for cinema. Think of the smaller ways CGI has been used to make the most magnificent of changes. The problem comes when this is the only option blockbuster cinema seems to have.
Animation does things that real life and realism simply can’t. The Lion King is a prime example of how Disney’s hand-drawn style could create the most incredible emotional responses. The elastic gurns of Timon play perfectly to Nathan Lane’s brand of sardonic humor. Scar’s high camp sinister strut was the stuff of pantomime but it effectively conveyed his malice and envy far more than any mere lion could. Sure, watching his hyenas goosestep like they’re part of a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film was as subtle as a brick to the face, but tell me that image didn’t stick with you or deepen the strange hypnotic allure of that world. Reality is whatever you want it to be in animation, and that seemed to be the case more with CGI in years past. That’s not to denigrate the work of people like Marvel Studios or everyone who made Game of Thrones look so sumptuous, but it does feel oddly restricting that the medium seems to have limited itself so thoroughly to realism when the options are endless.
To put it bluntly, I think we’re just too weirded out by CGI that doesn’t embrace realism. There’s a reason that Sonic the Hedgehog design is being redone (seriously, why the hell would you give him furry man-hands and tiny human teeth?!) Will Smith as the Genie couldn’t decide how ‘real’ it wanted to be and ended up the stuff of memes, all while forgetting everything that made Robin Williams’s animated iteration so kinetic and unpredictable. We want to allow ourselves to be engulfed by cinema, to be steeped in these worlds and truly believe a man can fly, and we’re all far too well trained to stop effects or elements that don’t fit our mind’s understanding of what is and isn’t real. There are exceptions - the Pokémon in Detective Pikachu were rendered to fit into the ‘real world’ but still distinctly looked like Pokémon - but as Disney have shown, we have a new normal. We want things to be realistic, comparable to things in the real world. The lions in our world don’t talk but we need those in The Lion King to look exactly like that.
There’s something oddly unimaginative about this stance too. Sure, having the new photo-realistic Scar look more like a mangled wreck of a lion rather than the suave lounge lizard of the circle of life makes more sense when we look at how lions work in the real world, but where’s that inimitable sense of deliciousness or the patented Disney Villain allure? Honestly, it just doesn’t seem as fun or striking as what Disney does at its best. They’ve gone from believing anything can happen to ensuring it’s only possible if it’s rooted in a skewed sense of what’s real. Personally, I miss the magic.
Header Image Source: The Walt Disney Company