Jon Favreau’s remake will rise or fall on its understanding of the medium.
Director Jon Favreau announced in a series of nonchalant tweets last Friday that Atlanta’s Donald Glover will star as Simba and James Earl Jones will reprise his role as Mufasa in his up-coming Lion King remake. The news was met, like the announcement that the film would be made last September, with mixed excitement and ambivalence. The internet agrees that both Glover and Jones are impeccable choices, but their casting only heightens the inescapable impression that a “live-action” Lion King is at best redundant and at worst unnatural. After all, the two great actors will be lending their talents not as live-action performers but as voice actors in a photorealistic reimagining of the classic Disney story, and for Jones in particular this will mean more-or-less rehashing his performance in the 1994 film.
Given Favreau’s impressive handling of The Jungle Book (another Disney classic) last year, it’s worth cutting him some slack. The new Lion King will surely contain, in addition to mind-boggling effects, a respectful new spin on the mythic source material. Like George Lucas before him, Favreau has a passion for applying modern technology to the classic structure of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and this combination of timelessness and innovation may well breathe fresh life into the story. But The Lion King differs from The Jungle Book in one crucial respect: it has no human characters. As mentioned above, this means that a “live-action” reimagining will not be live-action at all but rather photorealistic animation. As we emerge from the uncanny valley, it seems likely that the film will indeed look like live-action, but the notion that this constitutes an improvement belies a misunderstanding of the purpose of animation and media more generally.
Picasso is said to have once had an exchange with a G.I. in which the soldier complained that Picasso’s paintings did not look like the objects they purported to represent. Picasso then invited the soldier to show a picture of his wife, and the soldier withdrew a passport-sized photo from his wallet. Picasso, the story goes, then asked, “Is she so small as that?”
Picasso was making a profound point about the nature of the medium in art. As painters and sculptors have long known, art progresses toward greater and more varied degrees of expressivity, not greater degrees of verisimilitude. Photorealism in painting is understood to be a technique, if indeed a virtuosic one, but not an apotheosis. It is the constraints of any given medium that make the art form; art mediates reality. The way in which these constraints are used to heighten expressivity constitutes work of the artist. That is why The Lion King is animated, and why the makers of the 1994 film elected to mediate the story of Hamlet through animals of the African Savannah.
A filmmaker as intelligent as Favreau surely knows this, and will likely find new and interesting ways to use the medium-specific qualities of photorealistic animation to expressive effect. But in the age virtual reality, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that art’s distance from reality is what makes it art. Virtual reality ought not to be considered an improvement on cinema, because the constraints of cinema are what give rise to its various art forms, like composition and editing. Whatever the art of virtual reality turns out to be, it will not consist in creating experiences more and more like the mundanity of everyday life. Rather, it will consist in shaping, selecting, and distorting everyday experience to vitalize life and make it meaningful. The same can be said of photorealistic computer animation. If the upcoming Lion King succeeds, it will not be because it surmounted the constraints of animation to make something more “real,” but because it used those constraints to make something vital, expressive, and timeless.