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Is the new Lion King live-action or animated? That’s the wrong question.

It’s animated. But the distinction doesn’t matter.

Simba and Zazu have a heart to heart.
The new Lion King lacks color or personality. That’s by design, sadly.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the best sequences in the original version of The Lion King — the 1994 Disney animated classic — involves young Simba the lion cub puffing up his own ego for the benefit of his pal Nala. Simba isn’t any ordinary lion, see. He’s going to be the king someday, and that means he’ll never, ever have to listen to anybody he doesn’t want to.

And Simba just can’t wait to be king. (Everybody sing!)

The song is imaginative and catchy, and it transforms Simba’s preening self-regard into such a hummable earworm that it’s easy enough to buy into everything he proclaims. Yeah, he’s as blinkered and naive as any little kid, but boy, he really can’t wait to be king. Won’t that be great for all the residents of the Pridelands?

The Lion King, directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, uses its “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence to push its storytelling forward. But it also uses the sequence to underline some of its visual grammar. In the world of The Lion King, the color of plants will shift when you transition from a dialogue scene to a musical number:

The color of the nearby foliage changes when Simba begins to sing.
Simba just can’t wait to be king.

And animals will join in the dance, even if they’d traditionally be your prey:

Simba and Nala prance down an aisle of zebras.

Its grand finale presents a massive tower of animals, an image straight out of the films of famous musical director Busby Berkeley, and the scene ends with Simba and Nala emerging at the top, perched on the back of an ostrich. The sequence is the movie in a nutshell — colorful, a little silly, and sneakily smart about the characters’ maturity levels.

Simba and Nala are revealed beneath an ostrich’s tail.
Everybody look left! Everybody look right! Everywhere you look, I’m standing in the spotlight!

In the new version of The Lion King, director Jon Favreau stages “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” not as a kaleidoscope of movement and color, but instead as a sequence in which Simba and Nala prance around a waterhole. The vertical and horizontal movements that defined the earlier version are gone; it ends not with a rising column of color and spectacle, but with a bunch of photorealistic jungle animals standing in the waterhole, arranged in a vaguely triangular tableau. It is utterly and completely dispiriting.

It’s also the inevitable result of today’s film culture. And if you’ve followed any of the ongoing debate about whether the new Lion King qualifies as true “live action,” it encapsulates the proxy argument you’re really listening to: Should “realistic” presentation be a movie’s primary goal?

A lot of animation fans are upset with Disney for billing its Lion King remake as “live action”

Okay, the extent to which this is a “debate” is a little overstated. The people who care most deeply about how the new Lion King’s filmmaking is classified are animation fans who also participate in Film Twitter, many of whom are frustrated that the remake has abandoned the bright and lively style of the original film in favor of an endless stretch of bland and boring beige.

But the question remains: Should we call this new Lion King “animated” or “live action”?

To watch the film is to be aware of how it’s trying to look like live-action. Everything about its visual effects is meant to appear as photorealistic as possible, to the degree that Disney did not even use motion-capture techniques to match the facial expressions of its computer-animated animals to those of the performers who voiced them (as it did with 2016’s The Jungle Book, the earlier Disney remake directed by Jon Favreau). And as these things go, the animals do look realistic. Indeed, they look so real that they kept triggering my sense of the uncanny valley (when something fake looks so real that we only become more aware of how fake it is), especially when they were talking and their mouths mostly stayed rigid, so they could flap just a bit and create the illusion of “speaking.”

In interviews, the creative team behind the new Lion King — in repeated attempts to justify its existence — has talked about the 1994 film reverentially, while also seeming to completely misunderstand what made it good or why it would ever require updating. Favreau has gone so far as to compare his new film to a restoration of an architectural marvel, bringing it back to its original glory, which only makes sense if you believe that photorealism is de facto better than something more fantastical.

But Disney’s billing of the new Lion King as “live action” only obscures why the movie is such a creative failure. Because of course it’s animated! Every single one of its characters was built in a computer somewhere, and just because the whole thing has the aesthetic of a 4K TV test demo doesn’t mean it’s live-action. The new Lion King isn’t even like the 1995 movie Babe, where real animals were filmed and then animators used computers to make it seem like they could speak. It is an utter fabrication. The characters are, in effect, animated puppets.

And because nobody involved in the film seems interested in labeling it as “animation,” the movie fails because it doesn’t anticipate the most basic and obvious challenge of computer animation: It’s really freaking hard to create full, emotive performances driven by facial expressions instead of voice acting. It’s not impossible — surely, you’ve seen a Pixar movie! — but it’s tougher than in hand-drawn animation.

3D computer animation is good at many things. It is not particularly good at being “cartoony.”

The Inside Out characters scream in horror.
Notice how similar the facial expressions are in this still from Inside Out to get a sense of how computer animation struggles with certain details that hand-drawn animation handles easily.

The original Lion King is the very definition of a style that animation fans would refer to as “cartoony.” It has bright colors that pop. It has funny sight gags and slapstick. And its characters’ body language and facial expressions are controlled on a frame-by-frame level, giving them a hyperreal sense of emotion that even a human actor couldn’t convey. Cartoon faces and bodies can change shape or size — sometimes subtly and sometimes very obviously — to emphasize a story point.

The original Lion King is also a product of the era when computers were just starting to become a common tool of animation, in specific applications. The wildebeest stampede that kills Mufasa was largely created in a computer, but Simba and Mufasa were animated by hand and then layered atop the computer-generated stampede. The film’s animators relied on a computer to handle something computers are very good at — creating an overwhelming sense of hundreds upon hundreds of creatures rushing at the screen — while using traditional animation to shepherd the scene’s emotional core. That split between the two methods is key, and a big reason the stampede scene works so well.

In the 21st century, almost all animation is done on computers, but there’s still a distinction between characters that are “drawn” (even if the pen is digital) and characters that are “modeled.” Characters that are drawn tend to have the familiar 2D look of the Disney classics. For a great recent example, check out this clip from 2014’s Song of the Sea — the movie was created in a computer, but animators “drew” the characters and backgrounds, so it has the feel of traditional animation (though it is necessarily more minimalist than traditional hand-drawn animation would be).

3D computer animation is processed differently. Instead of being drawn by a human animator, characters are modeled, meaning they are 3D creations built atop computer-created 3D skeletons. They’re closer to puppets or stop-motion figures than anything else — with joints that bend and limbs that move in certain ways. And that’s why creating broad facial expressions or changing characters’ forms to pull off better gags or more affecting moments is so difficult within the format.

What I’ve laid out above is an incredibly high-level survey of the differences between the two approaches. If you want more details, you can read my piece on the Hotel Transylvania franchise, which found a way to blend cartoony style with 3D animation (really!). But hopefully my very brief summary gives you a sense of why the new Lion King characters can’t emote like the old Lion King characters: On a very real level, they simply aren’t built to.

Creating photorealistic animals means creating animals that can’t bug out their eyes in distress or flash confident smirks or come-hither glances, because we know animals in our reality can’t do that. But even if we wanted to create photorealistic animals whose hearts could beat right out of their chests, 3D computer animation makes it very, very hard to do that in the first place, which is how you end up with a movie where popular songs are performed by animals that mostly walk around during them, instead of doing anything involving color and verve.

That’s why the argument over whether this new Lion King is animated or live-action is sort of a proxy battle over the value of 2D animation, which has fallen on hard times. Disney hasn’t stopped making the original versions of its animated classics available in the way that, say, George Lucas discontinued distribution of the original Star Wars trilogy after the special editions became available in the 1990s. But there is a sense that the new movie is the “real” Lion King, and the original sits in its shadow.

And honestly, for the kids of today, maybe that will be true. Its nostalgia play will drag them to the theaters alongside their parents who saw the original when they were kids, and in time, the original Lion King will be but a curio. Fears of that possible future are what’s driving many of the animation fans who are pushing back against this movie and Disney’s remake projects more generally.

But I think the new Lion King will quickly sink from view, while the original remains a beloved classic. And the reasons have almost nothing to do with Disney or remakes at all.

Too much of our current pop culture is driven by an obsession with realism. But that’s bound to change.

Daenerys charges King’s Landing on her dragon on Game of Thrones.
No, I couldn’t get through this article without mentioning Game of Thrones.

Let’s forget about Disney for a second to discuss a different dominant pop culture force: HBO.

HBO built its reputation on shows that took very traditional, trope-y forms and then found ways to subvert them, celebrating the tropes while also exploring some of their darker sides. A mob story might be infused with psychological realism (The Sopranos). A romantic comedy might acknowledge that any number of people could be “the one” (Sex and the City). A fantasy series might admit that a truly good king can never exist (Game of Thrones).

As a result, many people have the sense that HBO’s shows, which are often very good, are somehow more sophisticated, too. That’s how you get to the idea that something like Game of Thrones is fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy, or “for adults,” or whatever you want to call it. And that’s fine! Any genre or storytelling form should have room for both its most realistic self and its most fantastical self. There’s plenty of room in the fantasy genre for the more serious Game of Thrones and the more whimsical Chronicles of Narnia, as well as something like The Magicians, which is an attempt to undercut both through something more humorous or even satirical.

The problem is that companies like Disney and HBO are tilting ever more heavily toward the “realism” side of things, even when a story doesn’t necessarily need to be presented realistically. So far, Disney’s live-action remakes have mostly eschewed whimsy in favor of stories that attempt to flesh out the originals’ flimsy world-building, to better align with vaguely progressive 2019 politics, to cover up supposed plot holes, or even just to tug the story away from a G rating and toward PG or even PG-13.

But most stories are flimsy scaffolds, and the second you start messing with them too much, the audience’s suspension of disbelief collapses. The new Lion King has such surprisingly extensive thoughts on the policy differences between Mufasa and Scar that it led me to ask oodles of questions about how the world of The Lion King works, questions that never would have come up in the original. (A big one: So ... do the lions, like, schedule their hunts and let the antelope know, or ... ?) YouTube essayist Lindsay Ellis has a video about Beauty and the Beast’s 2017 remake that similarly makes this point.

Where does this obsession with realism come from, though? Well, it has at least something to do with our online discourse around pop culture, discourse that’s driven in part by websites like this one. A movie or story can never be just a movie or story; it’s also an opportunity to talk about what that movie or story “gets wrong” or how it messes up some political or sociocultural story point. It’s an opportunity to, more or less, fact-check fiction.

Sometimes this impulse is valuable — and even more often, it’s a lot of fun. Do I want to know the likelihood of the events of a sci-fi movie like The Martian or Gravity actually happening? Sure! That sounds entertaining! And do I want to hear about how any given movie might play into a harmful trope that bedevils a group traditionally underrepresented in media? Of course. As a critic and a storyteller, I want to better understand how people who are very different from me perceive the stories we tell, especially in a culture where most stories are still told by straight white cisgender men.

But it’s easy to cross a dangerous line between “talking about something that’s wrong with a work” and “piling on because the internet has made it seem like criticism is piling on.” Consider YouTube channels like CinemaSins, which count down “mistakes” in movies for supposed comedic effect but mostly create pointless lists of nitpicks that suggest a movie is only as good as it is completely flawless. (For a much more forceful take on this topic, see YouTuber Sarah Z.)

The problem is that stories aren’t flawless. Stories aren’t real, either. They are, by their very nature, blinkered by the perspectives of those who wrote them. They exist to be problematic because they reflect a problematic world. And they all have plot holes, because it’s impossible to create a 100 percent airtight plot. Reality has plot holes, too. How else do you explain all of this? [gestures to entirety of the universe]

The best filmmakers find ways to ensure you’ll miss the plot holes or the problematic elements of their stories at least until after you’ve exited the theater and started mulling over what you saw. Yes, we can find issues in the original version Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King if we poke at them long enough. But you can find issues in any story if you poke at it long enough.

The conversations around both of those movies are valuable, and so is finding problems in them. But it doesn’t devalue the original Lion King if I point out that it’s not clear how Rafiki determines Simba is alive, because he’s a magic baboon priest. You can just sort of assume he has a vision or something! The new movie takes great pains to explain how he figures it out, and the effort just grinds everything to a halt. Sometimes a supposed plot hole is a request to the audience to take a leap of faith.

Today’s bizarre practice of nostalgia culture reanimating all of the hits of the ’80s and ’90s in a world that demands they be made more “realistic” to appeal to “adults” is bound to end at some point. There will eventually be a hard snap back to the fantastical, because there always is. Storytelling trends are as cyclical as anything else, and people will eventually get sick of all this nostalgia poison. But until then, it’s worth thinking about what it means that The Lion King is billed as “live action” and “real” when it’s anything but. It’s worth asking why those characteristics should have value but something colorful and fanciful and meant for kids and better should not.

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