At the weekend, the first trailer for the forthcoming Lion King (July 2019) became Disney’s most-watched trailer ever, in just a few days. The box office performance is guaranteed to match. It can’t lose, because it isn’t starting from scratch. There’s no hard sell to persuade audiences that they should invest in new characters or songs they’ve never heard. Even the voice cast includes the original Mufasa, James Earl Jones, with the rest comprised of household names including Beyonce, each major box office draws in their own right. There are no risks here, it’s all reward.
This photorealistic reboot follows the 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s second-highest grossest film worldwide, earning well over a billion dollars. But few things are successful without standing on the shoulders of giants. Just like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King remake could not command such anticipation were it not for the existence of the original.
There’s an era of musical animation most people recognise. It’s known as the Disney Renaissance, a surge of 2D animated Disney blockbusters beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and ending ten years later with Tarzan. In the middle of this era is The Lion King, an original musical very broadly based on Hamlet. The Lion King is an example of what’s called “traditional animation”, shorthand for 2D. It looks, in essence, like a cartoon.
The phrase “traditional animation” brings to mind artists hunched over celulloid, hand-painting individual frames, and indeed that’s how most of The Lion King was created. But the film also contains “cel-shaded” computer-generated scenes, including the famous wildebeest stampede. You can’t tell which scenes are computer generated, because the digital shaders make the 3D models look hand-painted like the rest of the film. This is common practice in 2D animation now, and labour saving compared to painting everything by hand, but from an animation perspective that wildebeest stampede simply wouldn’t have been feasible without CGI.
So, CGI is great. It’s a gift to animators. It can be used to enhance a film, making scenes possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. The lines between traditional hand-drawn 2D animation and cel-shaded CGI are increasingly blurring, and Disney have been at the forefront of much of the progress (for the 2012 short film Paperman, Disney developed entirely new technology called Meander). But we’re now entering a new era of Disney, one which values realism over the artistry and aesthetic of traditional animation. One in which the intent is to look as much like real life as possible. Enter photorealism.
Despite various media outlets and even Wikipedia referring to the forthcoming 2019 remake of The Lion King as “live action”, obviously it isn’t. There are no real animals in it. The film is CGI but is rendered to look like it’s live action, because wouldn’t it be adorable to see a realistic lion get trampled to death by realistic stampeding wildebeest, aww.
This new era of what Disney call “reimagined“ remakes isn’t exactly new (for example, 1996’s 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close), but it’s now Disney’s main focus. Alongside The Lion King, ten other remakes are on their way, including Lady and the Tramp and Mulan. The fate of those not yet in production, such as The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio, will depend on box office performance over the next two years, but there’s no reason to think this new era won’t last at least as long as the Disney Renaissance, and that makes me heavy-hearted.
For me, the point of animation is to go beyond realism. I got into the industry because I wanted to make things that are nothing like real life. Cartoons are caricatures, a distillation or exaggeration of character. These new realistic versions of beloved classics certainly push the technology envelope, but I don’t find any added artistic value, and certainly no originality. They look real. That’s not adding something, it’s taking something away. It’s removing character and expression.
But worse, I worry that by remaking all the original hand-drawn 2D animations as photo-realistic, Disney is sending the message that traditional animation is inferior, a temporary stop-gap before technology got good enough to render things as though they’re real. That technology is only going to get better, and where will that leave traditional animation?
The enormous financial success of Disney’s CGI offerings heralds a new era of Western animation, one in which realism beats cartooning. Photorealistic remakes are going to dominate the next decade, and influence an entire generation of paying viewers. The real king isn’t Simba, or even Disney, it’s money, and that’s a leader the entire industry will follow.
Tracy King is an independent animation producer and writer.