Day 6

Why the 'live-action' Lion King remake looks creepy to so many people

Reviews of Disney's live-action remake of The Lion King keep referencing dead-eyed lions and muted acting. Some viewers just call it eerie. Here's how Simba fell into the uncanny valley.

It's an attempt to create 'actual lions who manage to sing like Donald Glover and Beyoncé'

This image released by Disney shows Nala, voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, left, and Simba, voiced by Donald Glover, in a scene from The Lion King. (Disney/The Associated Press)
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When Jessica Mahon first saw the realistic remake of The Lion King, she immediately felt like something was wrong. 

She'd spotted a clip of the new rendition of the classic musical number Hakuna Matata and by its end, she could see why the film was being lambasted on social media.

"It's just so weird to see these highly realistic creatures that have fur and they have muscle and ... they move in such an overly smooth, overly choreographed manner you can barely make out their facial expressions," said Mahon. 

Mahon, a 3D animator based in Vancouver, felt that something had been lost in translation between the 1994 Disney-animated original film and the remake.

"The dissonance between the original, and what they have redone for the film, was just so different, so big that I just don't feel [it] captured what was going on in the song, let alone maybe what they were hoping for for the entire film's ambience," Mahon told Day 6.

The remake's menagerie of lions, hyenas, warthogs and other species looks realistic enough that director Jon Favreau has billed the film as being live-action despite the fact it relies heavily on computer-generated images. 

Early reviews for the film offered praise for that technological feat, but many fixate on how the creatures appear just plain eerie. 

Screen Rant film critic Kayleigh Donaldson said her eyes were drawn to the characters' barely expressive mouths, which she described as poorly matched to the star-studded voice cast.

"They're trying to create a very realistic scenario where these are actual lions who manage to sing like Donald Glover and Beyoncé, which means they need to have human mouth movements," Donaldson told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"You can't really animate that and do something that's supposed to look hyper-realistic."

The original 1994 rendition of the Lion King's classic musical number, Hakuna Matata, looks very different than its 2019 adaptation. (Walt Disney Animation Studios/YouTube)

Realism doesn't doom a film to creepiness, however. At least with The Jungle Book — Favreau's 2016 attempt at a live-action Disney adaptation with a similar animation style — the film had the human character Mowgli as an anchor, noted Donaldson. 

Photorealism curse?

Though it can be hard to balance a realistic model with the caricature-like performances common in animated films, Mahon said it's not impossible. 

"I feel that if they had some character animators loose on these highly realistic ... lions or trees, anything really, I know for a fact that there would be animators that could definitely get a performance out of these," Mahon said. 

Had Disney gone in that direction, Mahon believes that viewers would be more satisfied with the end product. Movies like Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse or Big Hero 6, she said, can feel true-to-life without looking photorealistic. 

Donald Glover attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

"When I animate shots, I'll try to incorporate what [gestures] I feel would get across to the people watching ... without being too cliche," said Mahon.

"There is an honesty that you need to have when you animate these shots and it's very similar to acting in that if you can trust the choices that you make based on your experience, usually it turns out pretty good."

Donaldson, however, didn't really see the point of the live-action adaptation, regardless of its approach. The new film follows essentially the same plot of the original with few deviations, new animation and voice cast aside. 

We can grumble all we want about how unnecessary they are or damage they did to the original films but they all make massive amounts of money.​​​​-  Kayleigh Donaldson

For her, The Lion King appears to be an attempt to strengthen the film's brand over storytelling. 

"We can grumble all we want about how unnecessary they are or [the] damage they did to the original films but they all make massive amounts of money," said Donaldson. 

"They remind people the originals are really good — that we should go buy those on DVD or we should subscribe to [their Netflix-competitor] Disney+, or we should take our Walt Disney World vacation."


To hear more from Kayleigh Donaldson, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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