The problem with Disney’s live-action remakes: Creating emotion with animation

Do Disney’s live-action remakes have the same life and magic as their older animated films? Illustration by Jason Mario Dydynski

Currently, a trip to the movies may make you feel as though you’ve gone back in time to the 1990s. Disney has been on a streak of recreating their classic animated movies into live-action remakes. Disney has been no stranger to live action remakes, including their 1996 adaptation of 101 Dalmatians and their 2010 remake of Alice in Wonderland.

But, since 2014, starting with their remake of Sleeping Beauty: Maleficent, Disney has been churning out remake after remake. Their list of live-action remakes now includes titles such as Aladdin (2019), The Lion King (2019), and Dumbo (2019), with many more remakes in production including Mulan (2020) and The Little Mermaid (TBD).

Many of these live-action remakes have been incredibly successful, and have brought in billions of dollars for Disney. The Lion King (2019) has been projected to have already earned over $1.6 billion worldwide, surpassing its 1994 animated counterpart by $968.5 million. Capitalizing on this success, Disney has no signs of stopping and already has plans for at least ten known remakes for future release.

But these remakes have not been without their controversy. Many have considered these to be a cash grab banking on nostalgia, and  the reception of these films has been rather mixed as a whole. While many moviegoers have enjoyed these films, many of these films have received lower ratings from both the public and critics.

For example, the IMDB rating for The Lion King (1994) is highly proclaimed at a 8.5, while the 2019 counterpart is rated lower at a 7.1. Many are finding the live-action versions to lack a certain heart and energy, making for the movies to be less emotionally impactful. But what exactly makes these original versions have so much emotion, and what is the problem with Disney’s live-action remakes? Well, looking into a bit of animation theory and semiotic research can provide some answers to that.

The history of Disney animation

Disney has always aimed to achieve as expressive of characters as possible. This was especially true in it’s foundational day, where the animators were encouraged to pursue “the illusion of life”. What this meant was not creating as realistic a character as possible (I’m looking at you 2019 Lion King), but rather to create expressions that were more than real.

It was believed that both humans and animals were not as expressive as animators needed. In order to figure out how to create truly expressive characters the audience can sympathize with, Disney animators began developing a set of techniques to make their drawings even more expressive.

This resulted in what is called the principles of animation, which are a set of principles to create “believable” expressions and movements in animated characters. These principles were first publicly outlined in the book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Thomas and Johnston. In the book, they outline the history and development of Disney animation, and lay out the guiding principles behind what made their early animations so magical.

There are 12 principles of animation that go over everything from believable body movements to creating impact in a scene. One of the most important principles is “squash and stretch”, which explains how you can give characters a sense of weight and mass by either squashing or stretching their figure. Think of how a character who is shocked or excited may open their mouth and elongate their face, but when relaxed or sleepy they may hunch over.

Squash and “squash and stretch” is a technique for animators to add fleshiness and a sense of life to a scene. Illustration by Jason Mario Dydynski

The principles also elaborate on how emotions aren’t just ‘in the face’ but, rather, full body movements with principles such as “secondary action” and “overlapping action.” The principles also stress the importance of “exaggeration” and “appeal” to make sure the emotions come across clearly, and in a way understandable to the audience. The principles of animation were used for the animation of iconic characters like Bambi and Mickey Mouse. They are still used today, and thought of as cornerstones of animation theory as a whole… for good reason too. It turns out there is psychological and biological research supporting these principles.

Creating emotion

Darwin and Disney had a lot more in common than one would first think. Charles Darwin, in his work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” highlighted the importance of the expression of emotions. He believed that emotions play an incredibly important role in social communication, and they evolved as a way for animals to communicate their current state and needs.

Darwin came up with his own theory of how we express emotion. He considered how we use the whole body to express emotions, such as how a cat may arch their back and rub up against an owners leg when happy, or lower their ears when scared or frightened. Many of these principles are also echoed in the principles of animation, such as the idea of secondary and follow up actions or the overall idea of intensity of expression.

In addition to this, Darwin also proposed what is called the antithesis, which explains how emotions of opposite natures, for example happy vs. sad, are expressed in opposite ways. In this way an upturned smile is opposite to a down turned frown; but keeping the whole body in mind, someone who is angry may puff out their chest and stand up angrily, while if they’re scared they  may curl up and slouch over.

These opposites are incredibly important in animation so you can clearly see what the character is expressing. If a character has the same body position for being happy, angry, and sad–even if you change the facial expressions– it becomes much more difficult to interpret.

Moods and emotions are expressed all over, being sad and being angry have opposite face and body positioning and movements. Illustration by Jason Mario Dydynski

The problem with the Lion King

While each Disney remake has taken a somewhat different approach in their depiction, the option to opt for more realistic live-action takes away from the ability to control the intensity and impact of the emotions expressed. Another important thing to keep in mind is that in interpreting emotion who, or what, you are communicating with is important. As humans, we are equipped to understand the expressions of other humans quite easily.

When communicating with animals things get more complicated, but species who are more similar to us make it easier for us to communicate. So a chimpanzee who we share more in common with, both genetically and in terms of communicative methods, would be much easier to communicate with compared to a fish or spider. In order to deal with this in animation they often anthropomorphize the characters to be closer to that of a human. For example, in the movie Finding Nemo the eyes of the fish were moved to the front of the face rather than on the side.

In the 1994 Lion King both Simba, who represents a lion, and Rafiki, who represents a baboon, are given human facial expressions and voices. This helps aid in the overall understanding of the characters’ expressions. While in the 2019 Lion King, they opted for a more realistic style. This makes it harder for us to understand the characters’ emotional expressions, because by comparison they are less similar to ours even with the addition of voice acting.

In this way, Rafiki as a primate is closer to us in terms of body structure and expression, which makes them easier to understand than a lion who has less similar facial and limb structures. This is especially true in the case of Timon and Pumba – some of the most expressive characters in the 1994 version, who, with a more biologically accurate depiction, lost a lot of the characterization they once had. In comparison to very realistic depictions, animation allows for these biological hindrances to be easily surpassed. So while baby Simba in the 2019 version may have been very adorable, without the expressiveness that animation allows it’s hard to see him as more than just a cute lion.

Movies to come

Studying the semiotic and biological principles behind our perception can offer us a lot of insight when it comes to our preferences in movies and animated films. When it comes to Disney’s latest live-action remakes, whether you are excited by the nostalgic thrill of seeing your favorite childhood movies in a new light, or horrified at the looming threat of your favorite characters being transformed into horrific CGI monstrosities, the legacy of Disney’s early principles of animation still continue forward.

Jason Mario Dydynski is a PhD student of Semiotics at the University of Tartu.

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