The Lion King Animators

The Lion King remake has already made over $1 billion worldwide, and it hasn’t even been in theaters for two weeks. That means Disney will likely be remaking their classic animated movies for years to come, for better or worse. And if you ask the animators behind the original 2D versions of those movies, it’s undoubtedly worse.

Following the success of The Lion King, several animators who worked on the movie were asked to give their opinion on the remake, which still hasn’t definitively been classified as live-action or animation. It should come as no surprise that several of these artists are not pleased with the final results of The Lion King remake, not to mention the lack of any recognition for their work, which is especially frustrating considering how many shots are lifted and recreated straight from the original movie.

IndieWire reached out to 13 of the animators on The Lion King. Many of them only offered up comments anonymously for fear of stirring up trouble with Disney and jeopardizing their careers. One commented, “I will only get myself in trouble if I comment on the other version,” while another said, “There is a huge resentment against these 3D remakes from the original 2D crews. Maybe if we got any kind of royalties it would be different.”

Animator David Stephan opted to go fully on the record to give not only his statement on the matter, but also summarize the thoughts of many of his colleagues who didn’t want to publicly speak up. Stephan was responsible for working on the design of the hyenas in the original movie, as well as the memorable “Circle of Life” opening sequence that was so meticulously recreated in the new movie. Stephan said:

“If you polled the crew of the original ‘Lion King,’ most of them would say, ‘Why? Did you really have to do that?’ It kind of hurts. It’s sort of sad that the stockholder is now in the room deciding what movies get made. Disney’s now taken the cover off, and it’s now in your face: ‘Yeah, we just want to make money.’ That’s disappointing as an artist, from a studio that was founded on originality and art.”

While criticizing Disney for mining their established film library for remake material is totally valid, it’s a little unfair to the artists who are putting in stellar work within these remakes. While the original storytelling might not be there, it’s hard to rail against some of the outstanding production design, costume design, and visual effects being brought to life. That doesn’t mean these movies are as praiseworthy as their animated counterparts, but to discount them so nonchalantly seems a bit mean-spirited.

However, in the case of The Lion King, there’s much more of an argument to be made when deeming the film unnecessary, especially when it comes to recreating this characters in a way that is photorealistic that it ends up taking away the emotion and expression that came from the original animation. That’s something Stephan was specifically critical of in his comments:

“It would jar me out of the film, literally. Especially with little Simba walking around. It was too real. And then when he would talk, it reminded me of those old nature films where they would dub the voices over and the lips would move. I thought, ‘Oh, this is really cheap.’ I think it was just too soon for this one.

I just came away going, ‘Wow, that was a great story that I worked on back in ’93.’ How come the apes in ‘Planet of the Apes’ look so much more alive than the animals in ‘Lion King’?” Stephan continued. “This one just said, ‘You know what, let’s cut the expressions out completely. Let’s just keep it real as possible.’ And I think it just diminished the film.”

Indeed, the animals in the movie aren’t able to emote in the same way, leaving the movie feeling somewhat hollow. The comparison to (presumably) the new Planet of the Apes movies is an interesting one since those were characters created with motion capture performances and visual effects. Could The Lion King remake have benefited from motion capture performances? Or would that have made the animal’s faces look that much more odd? It’s easier to accomplish with ape faces being so similar to humans, but when you’re trying to add human expressions to warthogs, lions, and birds, it’s not quite so simple.

At the very least, the good news is that there aren’t many more movies where all the characters are animals (though Oliver & Company and The Aristocats seem like viable contenders), so hopefully this issue of expressionless photorealistic characters won’t be a problem with many of Disney’s future projects. However, with the technology that Cats has put on display, I’m terrified of a future where Disney’s Robin Hood gets remade with a human-faced fox.

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