Does The Lion King 2019 flirt with the Uncanny Valley?

Let me start out by saying that as a teen, I was obsessed with the 1994 Lion King. Everything thing about it was amazing. In fact, one of the very first CDs I ever bought was the Lion King soundtrack. It’s one of those movies I watched enough times that I can still quote the whole thing.

That said, I was not thrilled that they chose to do a live action version. The 1994 Lion King became a huge part of 90s pop culture. There is so much to live up to that if they fell short anywhere, they would disappoint millions. Including me. I’m a pretty tough customer.

Simba and Zazu (voiced by none other than the ever-amusing John Oliver)

Why we might have an uncanny valley problem

The uncanny valley is a phenomenon found when we try to recreate realistic humans artificially. We usually see this in CGI movies and robots. The idea is that the closer you get to recreating a lifelike human, the creepier it is until you nail it perfectly.

I’ve blogged about this before when I talked about the train wreck that is the live action Grinch movie (which is a super amusing post, if I say so myself) and again when I discuss the concept of the uncanny valley over on my writing blog. That post is far more academic and has graphs. Fascinating stuff.

With animals, the creepiness factor is different, but there is still a general unease when something is off. Finding Nemo cartoonized the characters to be cute and expressive and it totally worked. This new Lion King made the animals photo perfect. In fact, they used live action shots with real animals as much as possible, only adding in the mouth movements when they needed to talk.

For me, this flirted with the uncanny valley. Real animals don’t talk and it’s weird to see them do so in a way that’s super realistic.

Don’t get me wrong, the execution is flawless. The 2019 movie is still a beautiful story of loss and redemption. The music is still the breathtaking tracks from the original movie and has only been adapted slightly to fit this film. And because I loved the first one so much, I started disliking the new one because of the differences and limitations of using live action with CGI.

The Lion King is an emotional story. The characters need to be able to express those feelings. In a cartoon, the animator can exaggerate the facial expressions so that it’s clear what the characters are feeling. In live action using animals we lose all of that and have to infer what they might be feeling using context and body language only. This took away from the experience.

Scrawny Scar and his band of hyenas, ready to drop a hit single

Other significant changes

There were also a few updates to make the movie more politically correct, like removing the Nazi-like imagery from Scar’s big musical number “Be Prepared” and actually having Rafiki speak in Xhosa instead of whatever nonsense words he uses in the 1994 version. I agree with these changes as it shows sensitivity to today’s audience.

But there were also a few script adaptations where key scenes were either shortened, lengthened, or removed. That insightful part where Rafiki smacks Simba in the head and then says he shouldn’t worry about it because it’s in the past – gone. The funny bit where Timon is confused about how Nala wants to eat Pumba while still being friends with Simba – gone.

That lovely five-second bit where Simba flops down and sends a swirl of seeds into the air which Rafiki then finds? They turned that into a three-minute montage where we follow a tuft of lion hair that at one point gets eaten by a giraffe, gets pooped out, and then is transported by dung beetle. Really guys?

Also, the casting. While they kept James Earl Jones as Mufasa, which was an essential choice, they didn’t keep my personal favorite casting, Jeremy Irons as Scar. I get that this might have been a move to make the cast more appropriate for a story set in Africa – but Jeremy Irons performance was amazing and I missed it.

Mufasa! Oooh, that gives me chills. Say it again.

Summing up

I wanted to love the new Lion King like I loved the old one. The story was there, the magnitude of the African landscape was stunning, the voice performances were on point. But, it didn’t hold up to the original. Instead of enjoying it, I kept trying to figure out what they changed and why it felt different. For new audiences, like my kids, this will be their Lion King and they might come to love it like I loved the original.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen it?


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14 thoughts on “Does The Lion King 2019 flirt with the Uncanny Valley?

  1. I haven’t seen the new one and I probably won’t. Like you I loved the old one and I hate change for the sake of change. I think the present generation would love the old one as well as you and I did. But people do like to change.

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    • Yeah, you’re not missing out on too much. They did a good job, they just can’t match the power of the original. My kids were not super impressed, but then again, I haven’t gotten them to watch the original either. They don’t like that style of animation when compared to CGI.

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  2. Flirt with the uncanny valley? It lives in the uncanny valley! Creepfest. The original was a near-perfect movie, but we seem to now live in an unending IP cycle in which all the content we loved as kids will be remade, repurposed and regurgitated in strange and unsatisfying ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll admit, I loved Malificent because it took a story we already liked and turned it on it’s head. But, then there is the rest. I have my fingers crossed for Mulan – it was my personal favorite growing up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • They turned Mulan into a Mary Sue that didn’t need the Army to provide her any growth since she already had “it”. I enjoyed the movie, and was okay with the added supernatural elements, but it was weird. It would have been much better as a shot-for-shot of the original. Ming-Na’s cameo was epic for me but Shan-Yu was one of the scariest bad guys of my childhood and he wasn’t even in the movie—not in his original form or name, anyway. He was much scarier as a real person without supernatural abilities.

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  3. I was just discussing remakes and sequels with someone. Why does the movie industry insist on remaking perfectly good classics, and spitting out sequel after sequel (there are at least 8 in the Fast and Furious franchise with pretty much the exact same plot) instead of grabbing a good story off a library shelf that hasn’t been adapted for film yet?

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    • I think it has everything to do with marketing strategy. A rerelease of a popular title has a greater probability of making a profit than something unproven. It makes me crazy.

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  6. I’m trying to introduce my 3-year-old to the 2D Disney movies and it’s been hard-going. I finally got her to watch The Little Mermaid today and then just started playing the original The Lion King. After finishing that I thought I’d check out the new The Lion King for the first time and here are my thoughts as I watch the movie (apologies for incorrect tenses, will try to write in the past tense):

    I really like the photo-realism but there still isn’t enough weight to any of the characters—not the lions, not the elephants, not the little field mouse. They all move, walk and prance around like their bones and muscles don’t have much weight. Their limbs and wings just don’t quite move right, still a little too robot. Zazu looked amazing but the birds on the way to Pride Rock at the beginning looked staged, like you could see them thinking, “Okay, now, cross in front of the camera on 3…”

    I didn’t mind the talking animals because that’s kind of a given with these kind of movies. It’s better than voice-overs that don’t catch young childrens’ attentions. The lack of facial expressions was really jarring, though. Simba in the gorge looked liked he wasn’t bothered much hiding from a stampede. I really wish they had used the same coloring-scheme from the animated movie, too. Scar should have been a more maroon-brown color, instead of just having a scar on his face. Mufasa and Simba could have been more golden-brown.

    Even though John Oliver is a white guy, he really fits the character of Zazu really well. I guess the character of Zazu is kind of like a busy-body English/Jewish nerd. This role would probably have been better with Eddy Murphy, though, if he played less of an American-buddy black guy like he did in Mulan. I could see Eddy Murphy portraying a wise, busy-body, anxiety-ridden African bird that was just trying to run a tight ship if he played the role as a straight man instead of intentionally comedic.

    Having James Earl Jones as Mufasa was a welcomed gift. Losing Jeremy Irons as Scar was sad, but, I understand wanting to use African-American and African actors for the roles in an African story. I have no problem with this and wish we, as a society, had been better with this in the 90s. However, even though I love and admire Chiwetel Ejiofor, it felt like his part was phoned in. So many other roles felt phoned in, too. Maybe it was just that I’ve grown up with The Lion King, listening to the soundtrack and the other soundtrack that was in all Zulu, over and over, and watching the original version over and over—the more theatrical Shakespearean delivery of dialogue from the first movie has really stuck with me.

    Losing Nathan Lane was sad, too. Timon is the epitome of a boisterous, theatrical wise-guy. If they were going to have two white guys voice Timon and Pumbaa again, I really wish they had gone with theatrically trained guys. Seth Rogan’s voice sounded OK but after watching the original both of those characters are completely flat; more phoned-in performances, especially Timon. Are there no two black theatrical guys that could have done these roles justice? Perhaps anyone who played in Hamilton? Key and Peele?

    Getting rid of Whoopi Goldberg’s character was an interesting choice. I guess, due to politics, I understand not inviting her back to voice her old character, but why turn the hyena trio into a duo? Just get another woman to voice the female hyena instead of taking her out completely. That trio was both comic relief and a deadly threat, which made them dynamic enemies. Note: Ah, at the end there’s a female hyena. She just wasn’t in the scene earlier that she originally was in so I assumed she had been taken out.

    I’m happy they went with black actors for both young and adult Simba but why did they make both Simbas sound like their previous white actors? New young Simba sounded almost identical to Jonathan Taylor Thomas (but more phoned-in) and new singing adult Simba sounded just like Matthew Broderick’s singing actor. Now that I’m listening to adult Simba’s speaking voice, it sounds like they made Donald Glover sound just like Matthew Broderick, too. I was looking forward to having actual African lions sound like Africans, and was hoping for a Zulu accent since that’s what the music is sung in. This is a disappointment for me. ‘Ithabise’ is now a permanent word in my vocabulary because I learned it on the soundtrack as a kid.

    Sarabi was amazing. I don’t think Alfre Woodard could do a bad job if she tried. I’m not a fan of Beyoncé’s singing voice (she’s an amazing singer but it’s just not my vibe—too many vocal runs, I get it, you’re good, just sing a regular melody, please!) but she did an alright job with Nala. I actually really liked the inclusion of Zazu helping Nala sneak off to do whatever, since Scar not allowing the ladies to go off to find food is apparently a thing in the new movie? It’s nice that Rafiki gets in on a little action against the hyenas in the end, too. That wasn’t necessary but it helps complete the trope of kickass wise sage.

    Just overall, the animation looked off because it didn’t have enough weight to it, or it was just robotic enough to not be believable, and the voice acting overall sounded off because it was just…bad. It sounded like they weren’t into their roles and most of it fell flat to me. If live action means less facial expressions, then the voice acting needs to overcompensate for that. You can’t have flat facial expressions and flat vocal expressions at the same time and hope the music makes up for it.

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