‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Lion King’ and the Future of Animation

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Updates made to this article on September 28, 2016 following the announcement of a remake of ‘The Lion King’… Original article follows, then the updated thoughts…

The other day, I finally got around to watching Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, which was made by Walt Disney Pictures and released earlier this year to unanimous critical and commercial success. While it is an installment in a series of remakes of Disney’s animated classics, it is not a live-action film.

Everything except actor Neel Sethi is a computer generated creation. The foliage, the trees, the environments, the animals, everything… The Jungle Book is pretty much an animated film, much like the 1967 film it cribs from.

It’s animated, and so is the 2013 sci-fi great, Gravity. James Cameron’s Avatar is pretty much an animated movie as well. Several blockbusters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the Transformers flicks are essentially live-action/animation hybrids. All that VFX trickery is animation. That’s common knowledge, but…

Where does that leave us? What are we going to call animated movies that know they are animated?

What are we going to call Disney’s animated classics? Studio Ghibli’s films? Pixar’s films? Everything from DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Sony, and Illumination? They are fully animated films, but what do we call animated movies that embrace the fact that they’re animated? Can’t say “cartoons”, that pretty much means “funny”, and not all animated movies are super-comical, silly, or lightweight. You certainly wouldn’t call Princess Mononoke or The Plague Dogs a cartoon. Plus, it doesn’t sound formal.

Perhaps things would be easier if we’d all just say… A motion picture. A film. A movie. Regardless of what technique was used to make it. See, decades ago there was a clear-cut difference, but now there isn’t. More animated movies are made around the world, animation is all over television, and animation has molded with live-action to bring you the biggest blockbusters. Unfortunately, Americans in particular still have their archaic bias against animation or “cartoons”, so they absolutely *must* be separated. See, as an animation fan, I admittedly specify if something is animated… But wouldn’t it be so cool if people just simply didn’t get hung up on how movies were made and just said “Oh, I’m seeing that new movie Moana!” without adding that it’s an animated movie?

Of course that’s a tall order, as well as asking people to simply admit that an animated movie was great, not just “great for a cartoon”. Plus a whole lot of other things. (i.e. “animation is only for kids”, etc., etc.)

That said, The Jungle Book, Gravity, Avatar, Life of Pi, et al will still be seen as “real” movies or “live-action” movies, because the CG in those films is meant to emulate real life. To be exactly like it. Unlike a film like Zootopia or Inside Out or How To Train Your Dragon 2. Thankfully caricature animation still thrives because a lot of audiences will see any movie that “looks” good to them, regardless of how it was made. Zootopia cracked $1 billion and was pretty much an unguaranteed film from the get-go, Finding Dory‘s circling that benchmark, The Secret Life of Pets is coming up on $800 million.

I’ve seen some worry that the success of The Jungle Book and Disney’s other hyper-real remakes will be something of a death bell to classical animation as we know it, others assume that Disney makes them to spite the originals for being done in caricature animation. I think Disney simply knows there’s a market out there that will eat these remakes up, so like any smart corporation, they have commissioned more and more. They’ll keep making them till the well runs dry. Caricature animation is not a well, it’s not going to run out or dry up. It’s like the sun, it’ll always give and give and give. Even in animation’s so-called darkest days, masses still consumed animation in some way or another. In the 1970s and early 1980s, all of Disney’s newest animated classics (Rescuers, Fox and the Hound) all made some nice coin at the box office, Ralph Bakshi scored some hits with his adults-only storytelling, Heavy Metal was a good-sized success, re-releases of the Disney classics routinely made serious cash, so it was still there… Even in a time where it seemed like it could possibly fade away.

But I personally think that caricature animation needs to grow. In 1940, it could do what no live-action picture could even imagine doing. Pinocchio and Fantasia gave you things that live-action couldn’t give you until the days of the T-1000 and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Now that live-action has – ironically – the aid of animation to make fake things so real-looking, it’s time for caricature animation to fully embrace the unreal. Ever since Toy Story wowed the world and the industry some 20 years ago, there’s this rush in caricature animation to be very, very close to real life. Almost uncomfortably close… Just watch some of Pixar’s latest, like Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur.

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Now take a look at some visual outliers, like these…

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That’s where I think computer-generated caricature animation should be headed. We can have some hyper-real ones here and there, but the closer you get it to real-life and live-action, you begin to think… Why animate it? Take the characters out and you have created digital sets that look so real.

Some few had complained in the 1950s that Disney’s animation tried to be “too real”, while the stylistic and revolutionary works of the UPA embraced the medium’s unreal qualities. I’d argue that even back then and during their Golden Age of the 30s and 40s, Disney’s animation still knew it was animated. What Disney’s traditional animation did was… It recreated life, and then *enhanced* it. Bambi to me is the ultimate example of this. Bambi didn’t just recreate nature’s beauty with a staggering amount of detail, it amped it up. Walking through a forest in real life is different from Bambi‘s otherworldly depiction of a forest…

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It took full advantage of the medium, from the color to the freedom you get in a drawing or painting. In some scenes, the studio – typical of them – went some abstract routes to emphasize their respective moods!

Even in the post-war years, Disney still used these sorts of techniques to make certain sequences stand out and to emphasize what live-action could not.

I feel we don’t see a lot of this in mainstream computer animated films, save for films that have the occasional trippy or art shift scene. Actually, oddly enough, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 didn’t go this route. Instead of saving the abstract stuff for a flashback scene, they use very interesting colors and visual styles to emphasize big parts of the movie!

See, I want to see more of that in computer animation. Kung Fu Panda 3, out of most mainstream efforts, really rings closer to traditional hand-drawn animation than anything. To me, that’s experimenting with the medium. Instead of doing what’s already been done over and over, Kung Fu Panda 3 is content enough to really push some boundaries. Now with that, and what we saw in things like Book of Life and Peanuts, can we one day see a big-house CG film that looks like this?

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Or this?

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Or this?

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Or heck, anything that resembles the most surreal independent CG shorts out there…

I’m not saying that CG caricature animation absolutely has to do this in order to survive, and this also not a jab at what the houses make. I’m still floored by the animation in all the hyper-real films, especially Pixar’s. Good Dinosaur in particular is mindblowing, but… Since live-action has VFX trickery to make things that are animated look so real (monsters, aliens, citywide destruction, you name it), it’s time for caricature animation to go through the roof and really show it can do what live-action can’t. Of course, in the end these experiments have to feel real. I think that’s caricature animation’s ultimate goal… Not only to look nice, but to feel real, alive, to feel like something you can immerse yourself into…

I think we can definitely marry that to visual experimentation…

End of original article, updated thoughts…

Disney has now announced a remake of The Lion King.

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Two things, already pointed out by others… Disney didn’t say it was a “live-action” re-imagining of the 1994 smash hit, and unlike The Jungle Book, there are no human characters in the film. In fact, The Lion King‘s setting has always interested me because Simba journeys from what’s perhaps Kenya to the Sahara, and then back… No mention of humans, villages, and whatnot… Just when the heck does The Lion King even take place? It’s clearly not the 1990s! Or even the 20th century!

Time questions aside, a remake of The Lion King that fits in with the live-action re-imaginings of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty would have to go for the photorealism of The Jungle Book. Like I said, the only real-life element in that movie is Neel Sethi, who portrays Mowgli. Jon Favreau is also tapped to direct this remake, so that seals the deal right there. This will basically be just like Jungle Book, except it’ll be 100% animated…

That is, if Favreau and crew don’t plan to film in Africa and set the CG’ed animals against those sequences. The Jungle Book‘s Indian jungle setting was all computer animated. In fact, the film prides itself on being shot down in Downtown LA! Just Neel in the studio, no trips to India or any other part of the world… All of it in downtown LA, the rest? Animated. The Jungle Book is pretty much an animated movie with one live-action element, The Lion King will be an all-animated film that looks like a film shot in real life, with no live-action elements whatsoever. Is that a first?

It looks like The Jungle Book 2 will either have to wait, or Favreau will delay it so he can get The Lion King done first. Disney has fast-tracked it, says the press, plus Favreau himself said it’s the next project for him.

Like I said… It’s time for classical, caricature animation of the CG variety to go new routes. Naturalism and life-like art direction? Forget it. No more Good Dinosaur-ian aesthetics, time to go full Book of Life, full Peanuts, full Paperman, the like… Time to re-embrace animation’s inherent unreal qualities. Time to go Picasso, whether the audience – who seem to want everything to be as realistic as possible – likes it or not. This kind of animation should feel life-like, but look like something else entirely. Real life, enhanced!

I have to feel sorry for Pixar, because the success of Toy Story I think inadvertently created modern feature animation’s rush to realism. Executives saw that film’s look as the be-all end-all, animation had to stop looking like “cartoons”. They had to be like real life. Yes, Pixar’s early films were exciting on technical levels, but so was the blending of traditional and CG elements in Tarzan. Every time I watch the Deep Canvas scenes in that 1999 film, I keep thinking “what could’ve been…” Imagine if traditional, 2D animation wasn’t abandoned. Imagine if they stuck to it as tech evolved, we could’ve seen some serious innovation. But no, we went years without it… It seems like smaller outlets are innovating, just look at animator Sergio Pablos’ Klaus.

I think we get similar experimentation in films like The Book of Life and Peanuts, and shorts like Paperman and Feast. That needs to be improved upon, it needs to evolve so that we can see feature-length films done this way. If tech can successfully tell stories like The Jungle Book and The Lion King, and make them look “just like” real-life, caricature animation – as said before – needs to go another direction. Forget realism, forget that ceiling… Walk out of the room, open a new door.

Explore.

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One thought on “‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Lion King’ and the Future of Animation

  1. Pingback: ‘Borrowed Time’ and Frustration… | Kyle Loves Animation and More…

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