The new trailer for Jon Favreau's remake of The Lion King certainly seems to have attracted a lot of attention - and not all of it good. While some have derided the remake as being a pointless cash grab, there's a bigger problem that becomes apparent in side-by-side comparisons of the original "Circle of Life" opening with the trailer. Despite a bigger budget and a much more highly detailed CGI animation style, the remake just plain looks worse than the original.
Disney is in a difficult position when it comes to remaking its classic animated movies that are heavily or entirely focused on animals, like The Jungle Book or Lady and the Tramp. The recent remake of Cinderella, for example, added the new element of live-action performances from actors. But since Disney can't remake The Lion King using live animals (at least, not without tremendous difficulty, and risking the wrath of PETA), the only way to remake it is with a different, more realistic style of animation. And when it comes to animating animals, realism is actually a major disadvantage.
By their very nature, animals' faces are far less expressive than humans' - or, at least, far less expressive in ways that are immediately recognizable to us. For an example of this, look no further than Disney's recent remake of The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Favreau. Take any frame of Bagheera or Baloo from the animated Jungle Book and you'll find that their faces are rich with emotion - fear, horror, delight, bliss, concern, amusement, confusion, and anger. By contrast, the animals in the "live-action" remake certainly look a lot more like a real panther and a real bear, but in order to maintain that illusion their faces need to be relatively stiff and blank. Andy Serkis, who recently directed his own take on The Jungle Book using motion capture technology, admitted that it was "a huge challenge" to try and translate Christian Bale's performance onto the face of a panther with a completely different skull shape and facial structure.
All this is not to say that you cannot tell a good story about animals unless those animals are cartoons. Nature documentaries like Planet Earth take footage of animals in the wild and create white-knuckle dramas using the power of editing, music, and narration. Similarly, movies like Homeward Bound use highly trained animals to act out scenes, and then use voice actors to convincingly give those animals personalities and emotions. But those are both examples of live-action "performances" from animals, which at least have the benefit of novelty.
The push to constantly improve CGI and VFX has led to a mentality that the more realistic something looks, the "better" it looks. But for the purposes of telling a story with animal characters, a realistic style of animation is just objectively worse than the more exaggerated and cartoonish styles. It takes an extremely valuable element of filmmaking - the ability to convey emotion through facial expression - and flattens it. The shortfall can be compensated with the animals' body language and the voice actors' performances, but at the end of the day the shortfall still exists. We've only seen a glimpse of the Lion King remake so far, but it's looking worryingly like a shot-for-shot remake of the original... which, in light of the points above, means that it has a considerable risk of just being "The Lion King... but worse!"
Disney is unlikely to stop the remake train any time soon, given how successful it has proven to be at the box office, but there is another option besides simply not remaking these movies at all. Instead of focusing so single-mindedly on the "live-action" look, Disney could instead experiment with different animation methods and styles - like stop-motion, or Pixar's signature 3D CG animation, or even something akin to Studio Ghibli's highly detailed east-meets-west aesthetic. If the nostalgia factor is going to bring people to theaters no matter what, why not try thinking outside the box?
- The Lion King (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019