The so-called “live action” remake of The Lion King makes no case for its own existence. Even if the vocal performances were in the same tier as those of the iconic original (and they are certainly not), the movie can only hope to be a bland continuation in the blandest of exercises: make animated animals look more and more realistic, because, well, we can.
What sort of story necessitates the use of animation in the first place? The answer used to be that you animated something whenever you simply couldn’t do it with real people and props, or when the weight of production would be too costly. A sprawling, colorful animated epic has no reason to cost any more than a beautifully animated family drama, since prices are charged per hour, not per idea. It takes no longer to draw a lion speaking with his mouth than it should to draw a human. For this reason, fantasy stories which rumble your stomach when attempted photorealistically (see Cats) can come off seamlessly through animation, where physical constraints no longer need keep a story tethered to our real world.
Whether or not the story of The Lion King was originally envisioned with talking animals, animation was always the method of choice to tell that story. The melodrama of the relatively simple son-avenges-father arc requires heightened visual elements: the jagged and grotesque realm of Scar and his hyena minions, for example, which visually represent his evil such that no child will ever be confused as to who the bad guy is. Animation is also more intentional than live-action, in that none of the elements on-screen are there by accident. Remember how we subconsciously learn that Simba has accepted his call to heroism by the fact that once he’s been recalled by Nala, his expression changes; the innocent upward eyebrow shifts (ever so slightly) to the stern eyebrow of his father Mufasa. He now radiates the power of the Lion King, and the justice necessary to control that power, even if he has not fully learned that yet. An animator’s pen links the hereditary majesty of father and son. We see in his face the potential of his lineage.
My guess would be that the animators of the remake initially experimented with exaggerating the facial features of the animals. Facial expressions are notoriously hard to detect in animals (if they have any at all) and they probably opted for a realistic looking faces over cartoony and potentially embarrassingly distorted lion faces. A hand-drawn lion can have all the facial expression and depth an artist can pack into a cell. But a photorealistic animated lion is bound by the self-imposed limits of his own realism. You can only push a fake lion so far. Even when they talk, the animated animals border on ridiculousness. All animals have mouths which were not intended to vocalize human language, and the challenge of shaping their mouths (a challenge not faced when drawing them by hand) is a hill which the animation team never fully manages to scale. Maybe the Homeward Bound approach of having the animals’ voices presented through voiceover would have worked better. At that point, you might as well just use real lions and hyenas, and either train them, or wait for the off chance that a baboon hoists a lion cub over his head.
The “live-action” remake of The Lion King suffers for many reasons. Among them is that the filmmakers, in an attempt to replicate the random chance of filming in real locations with real live subjects, have tried to fake the effect of capturing spontaneous footage. The camera struggles to keep up with a speedy little mouse, replicating the feel of watching nature documentary footage. Nature documentary cameramen cannot, after all, predict in which direction a mouse may run next. Clearly the animators must. So to pretend they don’t is their idea of making the movie feel more “real.” Recall the awkward feeling of having to laugh at a relative’s bad joke which they’ve forgotten they’ve told you numerous times. Your laugh is a pale imitation; it may, in extreme cases, betray your lack of amusement. This feeling of disingenuous enjoyment is the feeling one gets when watching The Lion King. We act like it’s impressive what Disney has done. But if you want to revel in the beauty and majesty of nature, it’s probably a better idea to watch footage of actual lions and monkeys and silly birds. Or, if you want to watch a good animated story, there’s whole studios dedicated to using animation’s potential. Pixar has made their name not through replicating real subjects or phenomena. They tell stories about living toys. But even Sid in Toy Story looks like a Jimmy Neutron villain. The people in Pixar movies aren’t “real” either. They move like cartoons, just in three dimensions instead of two. The point of computer animation was never to make things look more real. So why do we need this?