For a generation of children, the sight of lion prince Simba watching his father, Mufasa, die in a wildebeest stampede in 1994’s The Lion King represented a first encounter with mortality. Disney’s animators render the moment with a terrible poignancy that can stay with a person for the rest of their life. Mufasa first falls down toward the “camera,” a reverse shot from above accompanies his final roar, and then we rapidly zoom out from the pupil of Simba’s eye to reveal his horrified face. His mouth hangs agape, his eyebrows pull back in shock, and his yellow-orange eyes widen to make him look like the frightened little boy he is.
The Mouse House’s new Lion King remake employs photorealistic computer animation to replicate this moment almost exactly. Except that when we get that glimpse of Simba’s reaction, there’s no helplessness, no lost innocence, no fear. There is just the face of a lion, making the only face lions make, albeit with his jaw lowered. One thinks of the words of Werner Herzog, who described looking into the eyes of a chicken and seeing nothing but “a real stupidity, a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity.” Having said all that, you’ve got to hand it to Disney: It sure does look like a real lion.
While a vocal critical component has emerged branding Disney’s latest a failure (“Joyless, artless, and maybe soulless,” raves The A.V. Club’s own A.A. Dowd!), it would be just as accurate to say that the studio has succeeded in a disastrously ill-conceived mission. From the earliest conceptual stages, the project prioritized above all else the herculean work of creating and populating the film’s high-def vision of the African savannah. The production team operated under the premise that technological ingenuity can be tantamount to artistry, the notion that the most sophisticated product must be the superior one. To best understand the mindset responsible for this error, curious parties need only turn to the world of video games, where an emphasis on graphics can help games to transcend wobbly writing and sell blockbuster numbers. But the qualities unique to the two media—their limits, how we interface with them—make photorealism a thrilling fount of possibility for the button-mashers, and kryptonite for the movies.
More really can be more, when it comes to technical upgrades in the newer generations of games. Gamers tend to fixate on objective assessments, reflected in “criticism” that sometimes amounts to little more than a summary of total gameplay hours and under-the-hood horsepower of the programming. Leaps forward in gameplay fluidity, faster load times, and—most crucially—sharpness of graphics have made gaming a more immersive experience by bringing it in closer proximity to reality. Real actors now lease out their virtual likenesses to “star” in marquee games, and the industry standards race to keep faux-Léa Seydoux from tumbling into the uncanny valley. It’s turned into something of an arms race for hardcore specs-nerds, with ever-increasing graphics cards and homemade modifications giving online competitors an edge, while yielding higher-resolution images for the rest of us. Open-world games, which live and die on their level of detail attainable through boundary-pushing engines, can generate the sorts of reactions one usually sees at art museums.
These advances have been a boon to animators, too, so long as they know how to work them. During Pixar’s aughts heyday, each new release felt like a test of sheer possibility. Finding Nemo provided a showcase for the undersea physics that Pixar’s team had finally mastered, and WALL-E raised the ante to zero-gravity. In these examples, the active ingredient is imagination, a virtue thoroughly scrubbed from every frame of the nu-Lion King. In video gaming, however, producers and consumers place the highest premium on the specificity with which lived sensation can be replicated. It’s why using the Wiimote to sweep in WarioWare is fun, but sweeping in real life sucks; it’s why your character in Red Dead Redemption 2 can groom his horse and shave his face. Chalk it up to the human race’s miniature god complexes, but there’s just something exciting about controlling a facsimile of reality.
All of which naturally poses the question of what child (or anyone, for that matter) approaches a cartoon looking for a facsimile of real life. Who would have to, when live-action movies exist already? Cinema’s ability to roughly depict the world as it is sets the medium apart from gaming, which struggles to combine the player’s real-time decision-making with live-action footage responding to it. The movies, conversely, can synthesize elements of the real with traces of the fantastical. In cinema, CGI is at its most useful and impressive when it’s showing us things we couldn’t otherwise see at the cineplex, like 9-foot azure-skinned feline aliens or a living Carrie Fisher. In the instance of The Lion King, this lack of wow is pronounced because we already have a less “realistic” yet in every way more vibrant, emotive, and beautiful version right there for comparison.
The new Lion King’s box office receipts will most likely crush those of its ’90s predecessor, like Scar’s mighty paw atop a tittering mouse. The latest version has been designed for mass appeal, laboring under the assumption that pen-and-ink animation is for 20th-century kids, computer animation is for today’s kids, and photorealism is for everybody. In the most cynical dollars-and-cents sense, maybe Disney is right, but it should by this point be beyond debate that animation can reach adults as well as kids. These conversations play out over and over, from the study of cartoons in college curricula to the “ghettoization” of animated films at the Oscars, and we keep concluding that there’s nothing inherently frivolous about the form. Scan Disney’s recent calendar of releases, however, and you’d get the opposite impression.
Although continuously raising the bar for graphics remains a high priority for major developers, sectors of the gaming industry have already evolved beyond this sort of one-up-oriented thinking, ensorcelling youngsters and grown-ups alike with addictive simplicity. The most popular video game in most of the world isn’t some painstakingly detailed state-of-the-art work. It’s Candy Crush Saga. More involved projects have promoted the bold idea that something can be both technically rudimentary and creatively complex; look at Dwarf Fortress, a dazzlingly complicated roleplaying PC title styled to look like the text-based adventures of yore. Gaming culture once enforced the idea that substance and maturity were synonymous with sharper-graphics realism and disposable fluff with cartoonier stylization, and while that medium has for the most part shed the preconception (you still hear some nitwits whining that “real” gamers play you-are-there shooters), movies have just begun that process.
While independent animation has been quicker on the uptake, Disney largely won’t budge on the matter. They’d rather ditch the colorful, playful sense of wonder that made the original Lion King a masterpiece—and got it dismissed by some at the time as kiddie stuff. The Moanas and Cocos of the industry inspire hope for the future, even if Frozen 2 seems a tenuous peg on which to hang those hopes. But Disney’s handsomely funded remake division learns nothing from their own colleagues’ work. At a time when Don Hertzfeldt can move a viewer to tears over the fate of a literal stick figure, Disney’s gone all-in on audiences making an emotional attachment to a face devoid of emotion just because we can recognize it as a carbon-based organism. (The sweet hit of associative nostalgia doesn’t hurt, of course.)
There’s an alternate-universe iteration of the Lion King remake in which the animators go with the same aesthetic and just give the characters more expressive eyebrows and mouths. We have the technology to make lions dance or march hyenas around in perfect goose-stepping formation. Disney’s team consciously decided to not make that film, however, counting on the public to tremble in thrall of its big, shiny new toys. Ultimately, everyone attending the Mouse House’s latest has been made to watch other guys play video games. Turns out it’s decidedly more fun on Twitch, where at least we can hear them laughing at us.