When Is An Animated Film Not An Animated Film?

When the mouse house says so.

The Lion King Teaser Header
Walt Disney Pictures

What is an animated film? Type that question into Google, and the first response you’ll see comes from FilmSite: “Animated Films are ones in which individual drawings, paintings, or illustrations are photographed frame by frame (stop-frame cinematography). Usually, each frame differs slightly from the one preceding it, giving the illusion of movement when frames are projected in rapid succession at 24 frames per second.” Hmmm. Drawings, paintings, illustrations. What about sculptures or figurines? What about computer-generated imagery? Merriam-Webster defines an animated cartoon as “a motion picture that is made from a series of drawings, computer graphics, or photographs of inanimate objects (such as puppets) and that simulates movement by slight progressive changes in each frame.” Okay, okay, that’s more like it. That tracks with my layman’s understanding.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is an animated film. Toy Story is an animated film. The Lion King is an animated film. Which Lion King? Well, both of them. What? No. No, no, no. Uh, sure it is. No camera was involved in the process of making the film. Every character from Simba to Rafiki was created within a computer without even the aid of motion-capture. Every blade of grass, every tree branch, and every pebble of sand is a digital illusion. No one can say otherwise.

Jon Favreau begs to differ. In a conversation with /Film, The Lion King director acknowledges the lack of traditional means in photographing reality, “Because there’s no real animals and there’s no real cameras, and there’s not even any performance that’s being captured that’s underlying data that’s real. Everything is coming through the hands of artists.” That sounds like an open and shut case for animation. Start the Oscar campaign now.

Not so fast. Favreau goes on to explain how simply labeling the new Lion King as animation would do a disservice to the film as a whole. “But to say it’s animated is misleading as far as what the expectations might be,” he says. “And it also changes the way you sit and watch it. Because hopefully, you could just watch it without it being introduced. If we put up that Rafiki footage and didn’t say what it was, some people might know, some people might not know how it was done, but it causes you to be present and mindful and pay attention because you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at. And that’s a great disposition to be in as an audience member.”

Calling Lion King animated destroys the magic trick. Favreau doesn’t want you thinking about the army of artists toiling away till the midnight hours to perfectly mimic the raised eyebrow of a warthog. He wants everyone to get lost in the story, and he wants you to believe that this Simba could exist somewhere on some ethereal veldt. That is our current state of suspension of disbelief.

Favreau ends this particular thought explaining how his film is neither animated or live-action, “I think calling it live-action is also not appropriate either, because it sounds like we’re trying to present something that isn’t accurate. And I don’t know what we’re gogga call it. I don’t know.” We need more categories, not less.

Much of this conversation stems from Disney’s determination to rebrand/reimagine all of their classic properties. New spins on Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin sparked the ire of those entrenched in anti-remake hate but did not confuse classification. Cartoons be damned. What about The Jungle Book, Favreau’s previous Disney effort? Sure, there was real-boy Neel Sethi at the center of it, but everything else around him was utterly fabricated. We didn’t get all caught up in the question of that film’s codification.

Frankly, what blockbuster today doesn’t contain large swaths of CGI? From Thanos to Hawkeye’s haircut, the computer manipulates nearly every pixel of Avengers: Endgame. The lines between reality and cartoon have blurred. If you doubt it then just look at the Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences rules for eligibility concerning animated films for the upcoming 92nd ceremony: “An animated film is defined as a motion picture which movement and characters’ performances are created using frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of two general fields of animation: narrative or abstract. Some of the techniques of animating films include but are not limited to hand-drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutout animation, pinscreen, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects created frame-by-frame, and drawing on the film frame itself.”

The Academy explains further that motion capture and real-time puppetry as presented in the raw are not animation techniques. They define an animated feature as a film longer than forty minutes, and containing “animated sequences in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” Such a factor is responsible for Stuart Little, a live-action family adventure starring a cartoon mouse at its center, gaining entry in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2002 awards ceremony. A feat not repeated as more an more movies co-star computer animated cast members, and therefore another amendment to the rules was added, “A narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.” One just won’t do.

The most substantial chunk of The Academy’s eligibility terms concerning a film like The Lion King comes at the bottom of their definition, “If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action.” So, hey, the responsibility is not on us, but you. If Favreau and Disney don’t want to call The Lion King, an animated film than it’s not an animated film. They could make their case to The Academy, but no way. They’re shooting for Best Visual Effects at the 2020 Academy Awards.

Animation has a taint to it. We all love what Pixar does; regularly celebrating how their children’s entertainment also allows for a plane of humor elevated above those of their core audience. We’ll go as far as to call it all-ages, but in our heart-of-hearts, we still dismiss cartoons as kiddie stuff. Favreau’s refusal to name The Lion King as an animated movie is as much a marketing decision as anything else. He wants kids in seats. He wants their parents. He wants the teenagers, the singled, and the dating. He wants everybody. Calling The Lion King animated adds a stigma and could exclude customers.

Let’s go back to the original question: what is an animated film? Forget FilmSite, Merriam-Webster, Jon Favreau, and Disney. Instead, we must consult the all-knowing Wikipedia. Their collective hive on the subject reads, “Animation is a method in which pictures are manipulated to appear as moving images.” Consequently, every movie is an animated movie. The art was born when still images were strung together to create the illusion of movement. We can scream about what is and is not The Lion King until we’re blue in the face, but were only perpetuating the national pastime of arguing semantics. The question may have us hot and bothered in 2019, but as the years tick by and more and more Lion Kings flood the market, we’ll be forced to find other minuscule edicts to rage against.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.