Drawing attention

Disney's CGI remakes will never be as great as the animated classics

8th May 2019

Disney continues to roll out live-action adaptations of their animated classics with Dumbo failing to fly, The Lion King rising hopefully over the horizon and Lilo & Stitch glimpsed out in the deep space of the future like a distant planet. “Live-action” isn’t exactly the best way to describe these movies — every single character in The Lion King will be digitally animated — but it’s clear the term refers to the batch of copyright extending remakes the House of Mouse is pumping out.

These remakes have had a mixed reception. This is as much down to our nostalgia for the classic as it is the film-makers execution, but without reviewing every single one of these flicks — that is, without having to sit through them again — and reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of each film, here is why the originals will always have the advantage.

CARTOONS

First things first; animation and cartoons aren’t the same things. The latter is just one stylistic technique used in creating the former. Illustrations — moving or otherwise —  doesn’t necessarily denote a cartoon either. There are certain elements of cartoons and cartooning that makes it unique and more than moving illustrations. They’re confusing.

Perhaps it’s this confusion that means people don’t take cartoons very seriously or dismiss them as being for kids, as though things kids enjoy somehow have less value or skill associated with them. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Toy Story all won Special Achievement Awards — for Snow White, Walt received a regular sized Oscar and seven miniature ones — while Beauty and the Beast was actually nominated for Best Picture, but it still took 74 years for the Academy to introduce the Best Animation category.

Since 2001, digitally animated films have dominated the field, with 15 wins and 38 nominations, beating cartoons or “traditional animation”, which has taken only one win, for Spirited Away, and 23 nominations. Stop-motion has claimed the same number of wins as cartoons with only thirteen nominations.

For the large part, the winners are all deserved — Spider-Verse should have won Best Feature, though — but they have used elements of cartooning beyond illustrated and coloured cells that the remakes are so far lacking.

KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID

Traditional animation doesn’t do justice to what makes the originals unique. Again, cartooning is different from moving illustrations. Illustrations can take on all form of techniques, mediums and styles. If you’re being harsh, you might say cartoons are simple. If you’re being an artsy-fartsy intellectual — and let’s face it, if you’re reading this you just might be — you could instead say they have efficiency. Cartoons do more with less.

📷 Disney Studios
📷 Disney Studios

The reduced style of cartooning paradoxically allows for greater, clearer expression, both in terms of range — what it can do — and depth — how much it can do it. In terms of range, take the two images of Timon and Pumbaa from the respective versions of the Lion King. They’re pretty similar (or at least as close as I could get using the new trailer).  The top image is arguably more complex, more real, used more animators and probably took longer to create. But in which one can you more clearly tell how the characters are feeling?  The answer is the cartoon one. Don’t deny it.

Timon looks happy in the top image because that’s what meerkats really look like. Timon in the second image, while still being a meerkat, looks ecstatic because the animators have room to do that. The limitations of realistic animation is representing and communicating ideas. We can clearly see this in Pumbaa. He more obviously a warthog in the first image, but he doesn’t look happy. The image represents very well but fails to communicate. To make him look happy would require a level of unreal manipulation only cartooning — and the second version –has.

You might say, “Well we know he’s happy because we can hear him singing.” Yeah well, we can hear how happy the voice actor is in the cartoon, we can just see it as well. Show, don’t tell.

ACTING

Cartoons rely on exaggeration, and that’s not a bad thing. Exaggeration means clarity and communication. Because you can push the image further — smiles can be wider, shouts louder, eyes more shifty — you can better express the emotions of the characters. In short, they’re better at acting.

A lot of these films feature animals given human qualities to one extent or another. These funny animals are useful for storytelling as they can express like a human and they make good shorthand for personalities — tigers will be regal, monkeys will be mischievous, etc. But what about humans? You’ve encountered humans before. They are the worst.

Cartoon humans are great. Because they’re so simple in terms of design, they’re relatable. Sure they have some specificity in terms of gender and race, but because they aren’t a specific person, you can easily project yourself or parts of yourself into the characters. Think about it. Emoticons are the simplest type of cartoons as they are almost universally understandable and relatable. This — 🙂 — is anyone who is happy. 😛 , now they’re cheeky. ¬¬ , now they’re so over this demonstration.

Lack of specificity means relatability. Also, you can exaggerate features in order to get across more clearly how a character is feeling or what their personality is like beyond the limits of a human actor. Now let’s look at some another reason why real humans are terrible.

This is a very handy video comparing Be Our Guest from the 1991 and 2017 versions of Beauty and the Beast. Firstly, look how much easier it is to read the cartoon version. Not just the movement but also the characters, Cogsworth and Lumiere, in particular. Their colour and complexity in the live-action version just make them hard to read and reduces their emotional range. Speaking of which.

Emma Watson does a bad job in this scene. It’s not necessarily her fault, acting against a green screen to tennis balls on sticks isn’t the easiest thing, but this is Be Our Guest — it’s a centrepiece of the movie and Watson has such flat levels of enthusiasm. According to IMDB: “Emma Watson said she was bored during the filming of ‘Be Our Guest’ since all she did was sit on a chair. The crew would tell her jokes, to keep her entertained, as well as trigger genuine giggling, to be used in the scene.”

You can tell.

Animated Belle, however, will take whatever direction the animators want her to. In cartoons, the interaction between objects, animals and humans will feel more natural because they exist on the same plain. That’s not to say animation and real life can’t interact well. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a masterpiece, and it does just that. But then again, it’s using overstated cartooning against understated film noir. It’s smart about it. The fact that the animated world and the real world are out of sync is woven into the plot. In a Disney film, if the actors and animation don’t gel, that’s it. The characters fail to tell the story.

CHARACTERS

I’ve mentioned briefly that cartoons allow characters a better range of expression and can amplify their character traits. It also allows for distinction, which is useful if your film is about a bunch of lions that would otherwise look identical. Now, I’m certain Mufasa looks different than grown-up Simba, and they both look different Scar in the Lion King remake. But what the animation can do is create more contrast.

They can give Scar a much darker coat and mane which allows for better contrast between the characters in fast or confusing scenes like a fight on a burning Pride Rock. Nala and Simba can take be different tones and faces as they are chased by three very different hyenas through a dark and dingy elephant graveyard.

Character and contrast 📷 Disney Studios
Slightly less character and contrast. Nice lighting though 📷 Disney studios

Before its release, it would be unfair to say these scenes won’t work as well in the remake but the point is a) exaggerated design allows us to quickly identify and keep track of characters easily, and b) those scenes are definitely going to be a mess. I don’t care how unfair it is. I promise you’ll be like, “I can’t tell what’s happening, but luckily I’ve seen the cartoon.”

MAGICAL SPACE

You’ve heard about “cartoon physics” right? If Wiley Coyote paints a train tunnel on a wall, Road Runner can pass through it. A character won’t fall to the ground until they realise they’re in mid-air? Well cartoons, play a trick on us too. Time and space is allowed to warp without us leaving the reality of the cartoon.

In terms of character, it allows vastly anatomically different characters to exist side by side  — like Gaston and Lefou. More importantly, in terms of film-making, it allows the director to play with locations for stylistic purposes. A cartoon can suddenly change reality in ways live-action animation can’t.

Enter: Be Prepared.

Not to continue to rag on The Lion King, but this sequence does everything I’ve already mentioned; it exemplifies how cartoons can play with space in a way that would be jarring or difficult in live-action. I’ll take this all back if it’s brilliant, I promise.

Where on the savannah are there vents that fire green steam? That’s right, there aren’t any. I think. On the cartoon savannah, that doesn’t matter. We trust it could exist, and more importantly, we trust it’s the kind of place the villain would hang out. It doesn’t matter if it’s entirely real; it’s a cartoon, and that allows the filmmakers to use a palette, lighting and stylistic choices to do some nice storytelling through symbolism.

In a better world, Will Smith has released “Street Rap” sampling the original Aladdin score. “Agrabah, Hah-ha, Hah-ha” 📷 Disney Studios

Scar is a totalitarian despot. The lyrics give this away, but they’re quite complex and may be unclear on first listening. The Nazi symbolism is immediately understandable, though. This might not be impossible in a live-action setting, but it’s much easier to turn that kind of surrealism up if you aren’t a slave to realism.

It’s not just locations cartoons can play with. Actual magic is easier to accept as part of the story because it doesn’t look dumb as hell.

From the trailer, it looks like the Genie is going to be in his big blue form a lot less than in the animation, which makes sense for so many reasons, not least of all he looks terrible. But you might have also spotted the Genie pulling off some magic and moving around awkwardly. Again, this is the limitation of animation with live-action. It still looks kinda weird and weightless. Fair enough, it’s the limitations of actors, technology and budget. But with cartoons, you have much greater control over those things because they exist together in one controllable and limitless universe.

CGI throwing a spanner in the works isn’t just a problem in live-action versions — in fact, the escape from the cave of wonders sequence has some CGI in it that doesn’t feel right.

The Genie transforming into Jack Nicholson, a big breasted woman (bet you forgot about that part) or a submarine is more believable because of the limits of the universe he occupies. The cartoon universe isn’t loaded with our expectations and limitations. And most Disney films have some level of magic in them. You trying to tell me talking animals aren’t magical? Get outta here.

All of this isn’t just to dunk on some average films that are part of the lazy and depressing franchising of all stories — if I wanted to do that, I’d just write about the Marvel movies. Nor is it to say stop messing with my childhood, I’m a precious man baby — if I wanted to do that, I’d just write about Star Wars fans. Though it is telling that all these conversations are related to Disney. The point of all this is cartoons are still undervalued as storytelling mediums.

Disney classics, before Pixar, really utilised tools and methods of communication that aren’t available to other forms. While retelling these stories is fine — after all, every single one is a retelling of a classic tale or piece of literature — the obsession with dragging them into the live-action real world actually reduces them and removes the creativity, imagination and skill that makes them so universal in the first place.

Also, like, every single shot in these flicks is cluttered and messy and ugly af. Less is more kids!

Main animation by Milt Kahl for Disney

8th May 2019