THE KEY CONCEPT: The hyper-realistic CGI remake of Disney's "The Lion King" is lacking one essential ingredient - highly expressive faces!
I have a beef. Some of you may remember that a few years ago I went over to London to do some training for the studio that was in the process of creating the new live-action Lion King 2019. I was told that the director, Jon Favreau, was 100% committed to avoiding human expressions on his photo-realist animal faces, as was the case with his earlier CGI remake of "The Jungle Book" movie. At the time, I wrote a series of blogs (links at bottom) discussing why that was such a bad idea (animals that speak and sing, but don’t emote?) and I also made my case to a few animation folks working on the movie. Not surprisingly, my comments had no notable effect on the final film.
Now that Lion King 2019 is out, a great many of the reviewers are equally put off by the Uncanny combination of completely realistic animals that talk and sing with frozen faces (“stuffed trophies,” as one reviewer writes). For many, it’s decisive in diminishing the success of the movie which they describe as a strange marriage of wildlife documentary and animated feature film. Like, me, they miss the engaging anthropomorphism of the highly stylized animals in Lion King 1994. It is significant that Lion King 2019 is the FIRST completely photo-realist, feature-length, CGI movie with NO real-world input at all. With such terrific technological and artistic resources at hand, why not push the boundaries of realism?
Figures 12 to 16: The visible sclera (eye white), is a unique feature of the human expressive vocabulary. In Lion King 1994, the animators take full advantage of the ability of the eye whites to make a character look more anxious, angry, amused, or demented. In Lion King 2019, playing by the natural history book, the realistic animal eyes are limited by lack of exposed sclera.
IT'S STILL A GREAT STORY, BUT...
I'm sure your kids will enjoy the film with its grand visuals and talking jungle beasts. But here's a sampler of complaints about the lack of facial expressions from professional film reviewers:
VANITY FAIR: “It’s a lesson: in what makes voice acting resonate, for starters, and in the strangeness of hearing animals emote vocally when their faces are pretty much limited to moving mouths and blinking eyes—no eyebrow action, no subtlety, no liveliness. It’s a lesson in why we value animation in the first place.”
SLATE: “The director has said in an interview that he hopes viewers will benefit from the “emotional architecture” laid down by the earlier film; this comes vanishingly close to saying he hopes the fond memories in viewers’ minds will fill in the blanks left by his hypernaturalistic protagonists’ inexpressive faces.”
NEW YORK TIMES: “There is a lot of professionalism but not much heart. It may be that the realism of the animals makes it hard to connect with them as characters, undermining the inspired anthropomorphism that has been the most enduring source of Disney magic.”
TIME OUT NEW YORK: “This new Lion King is an invader of the real world, it’s characters akin to stuffed trophies mounted on the wall. They’re lifelike yes, but somehow not alive”.
SLANT MAGAZINE: “The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s "Babe"), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.”
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
Watching a behind-the-scenes video of the expressive voice-over actors for Lion King 2019 shows us how much personality could have been pumped into the film's deadpan, hyper-realist animal characters (see Figures 17 to 21). By contrast, the skillfully-expressive stylized cats in Lion King 1994 (see Figures 22 to 26) lend their charm through their anthropomorphic qualities. I look forward to seeing a break-through CGI film that marries the best qualities of both artistic visions. Will it take another 25 years?