It's been an interesting week for anthropomorphised felines, with The Lion King now on general release and the trailer for Cats emerging to widespread revulsion.
The Disney remake of a perennial fan favourite has made predictably massive dividends at the box office, but it has also elicited a good number of indifferent and disappointed reviews from critics and audiences alike, many of whom declared its attempt at ultra-realism creepy and soulless.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved musical (based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot) has long been thought to be unfilmable- a thought some are wishing was adhered to after viewing the trailer. The musical itself, the fourth longest-running ever on Broadway, is itself fairly batty with a largely non-existent and irrelevant plot, but the trailer veers definitively over the line from charmingly eccentric to bewilderingly mad.
Twitter erupted with gleeful horror, pointing out how bizarrely proportioned the creatures, their creepy hybrid faces, the inexplicable presence of human breasts. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Judy Dench’s forehead melt terrifyingly into a pair of perfectly rendered cat’s ears, or Jason Derulo digitally manipulated to look like a circus lion whose face is molting, or Taylor Swift attempting seduction while being the actual size of a cat.
From the #CatsTrailer comments on @YouTube "I went to watch the lion king in a cinema yesterday this trailer came on and kids were literally screaming and crying and people were leaving" pic.twitter.com/ixo0Z8Zpb2— Greg MacLennan (@themaclennan) July 23, 2019
In both of these beloved stories which have gone subtly but disastrously wrong when put on film, the disquiet emerges from the move toward technical perfection, toward realism indistinguishable from reality. As the theory of the "uncanny valley" first outlined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori says, moving closer to technically correct replications of real-life increases our discomfort, it doesn’t soothe it.
This is becoming an increasingly notable and irritating problem in Hollywood animation. As technology advances, some studios have assumed that however far it is technically possible to go toward realism is as far as they should be going. It’s curious that these titans of entertainment have not taken longer to reflect on what their audiences actually enjoy and feel enlivened by in animated features, what makes films like the original Lion King so favoured.
The first notable example of this failed move toward realist animation in mainstream culture was with 2004’s Tom Hanks children’s film The Polar Express, a simple, lovely, rather melancholy Christmas story which might have been a classic if not for the strange and chilling effect of its animation. The goal seemed to be to make the animated renderings look as much like Hanks and the other actors as possible, leaving me darkly compelled but disturbed by the human-ish faces. Why not just shoot a live-action film if this was the aim?
More recent failures in this arena include Sonic the Hedgehog and various Pokemon transposed into Detective Pikachu, where cherished cartoon characters from our childhoods became grotesquely realised with too-authentic individual teeth, scary eyes, human-ish foreheads.
Nothing made this move to realism look more obviously misguided than a shot-by-shot comparison between the two Lion Kings - the 2019 version and the 1994 original. One is artful, emotional and joyful. The other looks like David Attenborough outtakes with the wrong soundtrack on.
Comparison between the two animated versions of The Lion King. pic.twitter.com/E5dfgMASZJ— cartoonbrew.com (@cartoonbrew) July 11, 2019
There is nothing joyful in the new version, except the chance to appreciate the original. The fact is that people enjoy animation which looks like animation, they enjoy cartoon characters who are just that- cartoon characters, not approximations of humans. In any kind of art, the goal is not to precisely replicate reality to the most perfect degree we can achieve. Expression, truth - what we come to art for - are not the same as technical replication.