Commentary: photorealism and CGI in film following “Lion King,” “Cats” remake

Commentary: photorealism and CGI in film following “Lion King,” “Cats” remake

Photo Credits: ARIANA GREEN / AGGIE

Do these CGI remakes go too far?

As an artist, I have always appreciated the craftsmanship and individual style that goes into the making of an animated film. Designing characters and building worlds in traditional animation requires a level of personality and individuality —  no cartoon looks exactly like another. It’s up to the creative team to design a world from scratch, drawing from their own style and perspective.

Hollywood’s most recent obsession, however, is recycling old animated films and recreating them as “live-action” blockbusters. Filmmakers are putting more money, more star power and much more computer-generated imagery (CGI) into these live-action reboots.

Disney is at the head of the trend and has been re-imagining many of their animated classics. These reboots, for the most part, are successful. Its 2015 reinvention of “Cinderella” was a commercial hit, and critics praised Emma Watson’s performance as Belle in the 2017 remake of “Beauty and the Beast.”

However, ambition got the better of some filmmakers as they attempted to push the boundaries of CGI. With the use of traditional art and animation, stories have no limits or ties to the laws of the real world. Magic can exist and animals can sing and dance, but when placed in a live-action setting or a photo-realistic world, there is less suspension of disbelief in some of the modern reboots.

For example, the release of “Aladdin” in 2019 was met with criticism due to the design and execution of the beloved character Genie. Although the original bright blue cartoon was lovable and enchanting, movie-goers were off put by the digitally enhanced blue skin on the otherwise untouched body of Will Smith.

Disney is not the only company to face backlash for the failures of CGI. Films such as “Men in Black: International” were criticized for relying too much on CGI technology in order to gloss over the blandness of the story. Meanwhile, fans bullied the “Sonic the Hedgehog” animators for the character’s oddly lifelike appearance, pressuring director Jeff Fowler to pull the film from its original release date in order to redesign Sonic completely.

The animation company Pixar refrains from photorealism due to these types of reactions, writes Jeff Yang for CNN. He cites this phenomenon as the “Uncanny Valley,” which he defines as “a level of semi-realistic human appearance in nonhuman things that triggers instinctive terror or visceral disgust.”

While it’s amazing what technological advancements in CGI and animation are able to accomplish, these types of films raise questions over the artistic necessity of modern advancements in films. Just because you can make an animated figure look more life-like than ever before does not mean you should.

The most recent debate about photorealism and CGI in films was sparked by the release of Disney’s reboot of the 1994 film “The Lion King.” In one of the most challenging feats of modern special effects, director Jon Favreau sought to make the entire film photorealistic. He employed aspects of live action, visual reality technology and animation to make a film about a lion pack in the Sahara Desert look as though it were shot in live-action.

“There’s so much confusion as to what the medium is,” Favreau said in an interview with the LA Times. “The trick here was to make it feel like an entirely new medium. Even though we use animation techniques, we wanted it to appear live-action. And that required a lot of technical and technological innovation.”

While the film was an impeccable piece of technological advancement, many people questioned the use of photorealistic CGI to replace this particular animated film. To go from highly stylized cartoon characters to realistic animal figures was a massive leap.

Fans of the first film worried that lions and other wild animals that actually looked like animals would not be capable of imbuing the same emotions and humor into the story compared to their cartoon counterparts in the original film.

The 1994 film received a score of 93%, according to Rotten Tomatoes; however, the remake received a score of only 53%. Knowing this, I went into the movie theater with relatively low expectations. Although I had not seen the original film in years, I remembered how much I loved it and the impact it left upon me.

I was not completely disappointed by the reboot. The soundtrack lead by Beyoncé and Donald Glover is unbeatable. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan shine as meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa. The animals’ designs were just about as realistic looking as anyone could have ever dreamed. There was an absence of the mechanical feeling most CGI animals have: The lions move fluidly throughout the film, and oftentimes I would forget they were not actually real.

As impressive and well-executed as the photorealistic effects were, there are still some major drawbacks to this film style. Much of the magic within the story was lost behind the realism. For example, the shaman of the jungle, Rafiki, was always such a mystical and mysterious character — in the original film, he was the all-knowing guide that led Simba to his father’s ghost and, ultimately, to his destiny. In the reboot, Rafiki was rather unremarkable — instead of embodying a spiritual guide and prophet of the dead, Rafiki looked like a silly monkey in a tree.

Meanwhile, Eichner and Rogan’s stellar performances could have been boosted in a more emotive medium. I found myself wishing the animals could convey the emotions and attitudes of the voices behind them. For example, Pumba, the lovably unaware warthog, was cute as a cartoon, but warthogs in real life are much less charming, no matter who voices it.

Perhaps the most disturbing proof of CGI going too far is the upcoming movie “Cats,” based one of the longest running Broadway musicals of the same title, which features a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and is based off of poems by T.S. Eliot. The movie’s announcement

should have been met with excitement, but was instead met with disgust. The film features a star-studded cast that have had CGI fur added to them, resulting in a strange mix of cat and human.

Overall, there are problems with Hollywood’s incessant need to insert impressive CGI technology into every project. So much of the artistry and individuality of animation is lost when the focus is on hyper-realism.

There is a certain merit to marketing aging stories to a modern audience. Although the new version of “The Lion King” was not my favorite, it did spark my memory of just what makes the story so great. I had forgotten how powerful both the message and the soundtrack are. While I’m sure Disney’s goal in these reboots is to profit from nostalgia, they are also introducing modern audiences to classic stories in a way that will engage and excite.

After all, the original “Lion King” has been speculated to be based off of biblical tales of Joseph and Moses, as well as inspired by aspects of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In 1994, the first film used the latest technology to tell an age-old story in the same way that the 2019 movie does. Using stars like Beyoncé and pushing the boundaries of technology, the film draws in a modern audience and perpetuates the message and purpose of the story. While much is lost when the style and artistry of traditional animation is taken out of these films, it might be worth it if it keeps the stories alive.

Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org