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In an animated movie, you can do literally anything. It was, once upon a time, the one great benefit of the medium. Where making things feel "real" in a live-action movie was limited by the special effects of the day, in an animated movie, anything you could draw looked just as real as anything else. Classic Disney movies like Bambi or even the Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts couldn't have existed any other way. You could even have animals and humans having conversations together as if that was normal. It's part of what made animation feel like magic.
However, with the progress that has been made in digital effects, that point of differentiation doesn't really exist anymore. Now, as long as you're willing to spend the money, you can make anything look real. You can create truly alien worlds, make an actor look like their own younger self or just about anything else. Not all of these digital effects are 100% convincing, but they're awfully close, and in many cases, they are perfectly believable.
Alongside this revolution in digital effects, we have seen Walt Disney Studios have increasing success with a new line of films: live-action remakes of the company's classic animated features. This has meant, in many cases, taking those movies where animals spoke and using those impressive new digital effects to make that happen once again, only making it look like "real" animals are talking. Since The Jungle Book, it seems like we're seeing more and more Disney movies (mostly remakes, but now also original films) using this technology... and I need a break. Can we stop it with the live-action talking animals, please?
The Technology Is Amazing
To be clear, I'm not saying that on a technical level, the realistic animals being brought together with CGI don't work. They absolutely do; these animals look absolutely incredible.
I think that "The Circle of Life," the entire opening of the original animated The Lion King, is one of the great move openings of all time. It's a beautiful song that uses language and imagery to transport you to a place that most of us will never really see. The wide-open African wilderness is teeming with life. We see creatures great and small existing side by side, all traveling across the landscape. From the opening sunrise to the final beat of the drum as the movie title arrives, it's all magic.
And I think that the live-action remake of The Lion King might even be better. In nearly every way, it is identical to the original, and even some of the shots are lifted directly from the animated version. This is the second time we've seen this done, to be sure, but because all we have to do is listen to music and watch these digital animals on display, you really can look and see them and you realize just how amazing the technology really is. It's everything that's great about the animated version, but it also looks real. It's incredible.
They Ultimately Don't Work As Lead Characters
And then they start talking, and it all starts to fall apart. Where The Lion King remake stumbles is that, because the animals are, for the purposes of the film, real, they're limited to the sorts of expressions that real animals are capable of. The Simba of the animated Lion King could show complete terror as he watched Mufasa fall or show sorrow at his death because animation wasn't limited to what lions can actually do with their face. The remake was largely forced to find its emotion in the voice actors alone because the visuals simply could not do the job. It might have been technically possible, but "realism" wouldn't allow it, and it hampers the film in a big way.
This weekm we have The One and Only Ivan debuting on Disney+ and doing it all again. Once more, technologically, the movie is quite impressive. All the animal characters are believable as animals, and in the case of Ivan, some of the issues I've had with other films are dealt with simply because a gorilla is capable of facial expressions similar to those of humans, so Ivan is allowed to show real sadness. It works when he does it. Not so much when Ruby the elephant tried to do the same.
Animation doesn't simply allow for animals to have a wider variety of facial expressions; it allows for a suspension of disbelief that you just don't have in live-action. Yes, The Lion King is fictional, but by making the characters look and act like the real thing, we're supposed to view them that way, but then when they talk in a way that animals don't, it's artificial again. What we're willing to do to make them feel real versus fictional seems arbitrary, and it just makes the whole thing confusing. While the characters look entirely real, there's still a sort of emotional uncanny valley that makes it difficult to relate to them because they exist in some strange place between reality and fantasy.
This all works a little bit better in something like Lady & the Tramp, but mostly for incidental reasons. That film, while sweet, simply doesn't have emotional moments as powerful as something like The Lion King, and so we don't ask the digital dogs to do as much heavy lifting. Similarly, in a movie like The Jungle Book, the digital animals are not our main characters, so as an audience, we're not focused on them in the same way. We're seeing everything through the eyes of Mowgli, and Baloo doesn't need to be perfect because he's not the star. He looks that much more impressive simply because he's doing less.
Of course, the animals that do the least are the real stars so far. The animals like Aladdin's Abu and Iago don't speak at all, and while they might be more intelligent than normal animals, they aren't expected to be anything more than that.
And I'm still just absolutely terrified of what's going to happen with the live-action The Little Mermaid. Are we really going to have a realistic CGI Flounder that talks like a human? Because I literally can't think of anything in the world creepier than that.
The technology on display is amazing, so it's no surprise that we're seeing it used a lot. Between theatrical releases and Disney+ movies, most of them in the last few years include this sort of CGI work, and while it's very impressive in many ways, it's just not where it needs to be in order to give us the sort of emotional experience from a live-action film that we still get from Walt Disney Animation. Let's leave the talking animals in the animated movies, at least until the next breakthrough in digital technology gets us the rest of the way there.