Of the slew of Disney’s new live-action remakes, perhaps the most anticipated release was this summer’s The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau. After all, the original 1994 version was arguably the crown jewel of the ‘Disney Renaissance’, enjoying massive commercial and critical success (followed by a highly successful Broadway production). More importantly - at least for those like me who grew up in the 90’s - it was a cultural touchstone, a perennial source of references, parodies, and praise.
Despite initial excitement and successful box-office returns, critical reviews of the new live action version did not react so favorably. It currently sits at 53% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a more favorable audience score). Among their charges, most critics consistently bring up one point: the CGI animals. While technically impressive, the photorealistic lions, hyenas, and warthogs did not have the same liveliness of their hand-drawn predecessors. Several reviewers felt it as erring towards the Uncanny Valley, that feeling of discomfort created by close but imperfect simulations of humans. IndieWire dubbed it “the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake.” It has also launched think pieces on issues with photorealism. The problem is that real-life animals simply do not emote like humans do. By making its characters hyper-realistic, a disconnect emerges between the emotions the movie tells us they feel and what we see.
Though this trend seems a recent problem for the film industry, the underlying issue of how and why we use animals to tell stories goes back much further. An ancient Greek or Roman would have likely seen something very familiar in The Lion King. While its plotline may be an homage to Shakespeare (and Kimba the White Lion), The Lion King’s heart lies in a kind of popular story from antiquity: the fable. The original film largely works because the animation of its animal characters embraced a fabulistic approach. While closely following many aspects of the original, the recent iteration’s bid for realism deliberately neglects this tradition, resulting in the sense of soullessness described by critics. Our resistance to these true-to-life animals in turn raises questions about the nature of animals in storytelling. Why do stories, in any medium, anthropomorphize animals the ways they do? Is our desire to see ourselves so innate that the success of a story featuring animals and other non-humans hinges on its ability to emulate human traits?
False Stories, True Points
Even in classical antiquity, the fable tradition was quite ancient, with roots stretching back into the ancient Near East. Greeks and Romans themselves had several terms for such tales, all derived from some sense of ‘word’ or ‘speech’, including Greek ainos, mythos and logos or Latin apologus, fabula and fabella. Rather than adhere to any specific meter or performance venue, fables could be deployed in a variety of contexts, usually to illustrate some moral or ethical point. For example, the earliest attested fable, ‘The Hawk and Nightingale’ in Hesiod’s didactic epic Works and Days 202-12, underscores the author’s lessons on the nature of power to his brother, Perses. Similarly, Horace rounds out his Satire 2.6 with the fabella ‘Town Mouse and Country Mouse’ encapsulating the vices and virtues of city versus country living his poem focuses on.
The first critical discussion of the fable occurs in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric 2.20, which describes a logos as a kind of rhetorical example, or paradeigma; however, most modern definitions follow that of Theon, a 2nd c. CE rhetorician. In his Progymnasmata, Theon writes, “a fable (mythos) is a false story (logos pseudēs) modeling truth (alētheia).” In order to convey whatever practical advice it offers, a fable encases it in a fabricated tale. Though they occasionally feature humans, gods and inanimate objects, most fables, like those of Hesiod and Horace, accomplish their objectives through animals. Tales attributed to Aesop, the pseudo-historical ‘fable-maker’ (logopoios) and most famous figure within the tradition, so often involved animals that the term ‘Aesopic’ came to describe fables centered around animal characters.
As Theon’s definition outlines, although based on real-life creatures like birds, foxes, snakes or lions, animals in a fable will signal their story as fictional (logos pseudēs) while also speaking to some practical, human truth (alētheia). The most obvious sign of this is the simple fact that fable animals can talk. While the ancients thought an animal could have a voice (phonē/vox) to signal pain or pleasure and some species, such as hyenas and parrots, could even mimic human utterances, most schools of thought reserved true speech (logos/sermo) and, subsequently, rational thought for humans. In the alternate reality of the fable, animals speak just like humans and usually discuss distinctly human concepts. Hesiod and Horace’s birds and mice chastise and council one another about mercy, justice, leisure and toil in perfect verse. Fable animals even possess the same personalities, values, and institutions as people.
Anthropomorphism which instills human-like voices and minds into fictional animal characters percolated into other genres, particularly comedy and parody. Through such animals, storytellers could give their work a distant, fictionalized, even absurdist atmosphere akin to fables, while still speaking towards human concerns. The choruses of Aristophanes abound with singing and dancing frogs, wasps, birds and other creatures. Similarly, the mock-epic Battle of Frogs and Mice, which tells the story of a one-day war waged after the death of a mouse prince, transposes a Homeric battle narrative into the fable-verse.
Making a Lion Cry
Considering these elements, it is easy to see the connection between the core story of The Lion King and ancient fables and fable-inspired works. One might even say The Lion King is to Hamlet what the Battle of Frogs and Mice is to the Iliad. Both recast human narratives into a distant, timeless world populated by animals and, in doing so, grant their animals human attributes. Not only do the creatures on the Disney savannah declaim with poise and panache, their world contains civic institutions. An absolute monarchy of lions (leonarchy?) presides over the savannah, attended by advisers like the hornbill Zazu, who calls himself, “the king’s majordomo.” All this combines into a clearly pseudēs story, yet one that also speaks towards some human alētheia. The plot of The Lion King has a lot to say on human concerns like parenthood, rulership, destiny, and responsibility.
Alongside granting its characters human voices and personalities, 1994’s The Lion King animates their bodies accordingly. Animation works particularly well for stories with non-human characters exactly because we understand it as not real. It is by its very nature a logos pseudēs, pointedly advertising its own fictionality; just think of any Wile E. Coyote skit. In animation, like in ancient fables and their relatives, a non-human character can be as human as their story requires. Earlier Disney animations like Bambi (1942) or the Fox and the Hound (1981), though ostensibly set in realistic worlds, regularly featured animals talking, singing and making exaggerated facial expressions. In this form, aspects that depart from our understanding of the natural world do not necessarily break our engagement but can in fact enhance it.
A perfect example of this occurs in arguably one of the most potent scenes of the original The Lion King: the death of Mufasa. While the nail-biting suspense of the wildebeest stampede and Scar’s iconic betrayal no doubt rouse our emotions, the real pathos does not set in until the quieter moment when Simba goes to his father’s body. As music sets the tone, the emotional pull comes when we see Simba’s face as he tries to wake his father. His facial expression oscillates between hope, fear and sorrow until, desperately calling for help, his eyes well with tears.
In real-life, lions don’t cry. Not that they don’t feel emotions, they can, they just don’t show it on their faces like we do. In fact, the 1st c. CE naturalist, Pliny the Elder, wrote that lions actually convey their state of mind through their tails, which he calls their index animi (Natural History 8.19.49). Likewise, the animators of 1994’s The Lion King were almost certainly aware of the limits of a lion’s emotive range. In fact, they took pains to portray their characters’ bodies and movements like their real-world counterparts, studying live animals and consulting wildlife experts. Despite this attention to real-life lions, they deliberately chose to animate Simba in an unrealistic way so as to convey his emotions in a way humans could empathize with. This decision captures how the original The Lion King embodies the fable tradition. Like its ancient forebears, the first The Lion King, had no qualms indulging in the limits of a logos pseudēs - its medium allows, even encourages, it to. Should the situation call for it, a lion can cry.
Not Letting the Lion Cry
In the new The Lion King, Simba’s reaction to Mufasa’s death does not hit the same way it did the first time. One of the original screenwriters, Linda Woolverton stated in an interview with Vanity Fair that on top of some changes in pacing and dialogue, the scene “doesn’t land with as much of a wallop.” As she says, this is mostly because of Simba’s expression, or lack thereof. Unlike the original, Simba does not cry. In fact, he does not make much of an expression at all. The music and voice acting tell us the character is in grief, but his face looks too ‘feline’ to be convincing.
Beyond any changes to dialogue or subplot, the strong adherence to realism is where the remake departs from the original. For example, during the opening scene, which largely recreates the original shot-for-shot, Rafiki lifts Simba out above the throngs of cheering animals while sitting down, likely since a real mandrill could not hold a lion cub while standing on two legs. The musical numbers in particular become much more toned down. In place of the vibrant colors mirroring the optimistic projections of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ or the villainous jets of green gas in ‘Be Prepared’, characters simply sing their lines while strolling through different parts of the savannah. This aesthetic shift likely stems from an attempt to align the new The Lion King with Disney’s other live-action reboots, such as The Jungle Book (2016), also directed by Favreau. The film has a human lead in Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, accompanied by a cast of CGI animals and strives to seamlessly blend its real and unreal characters. As Favreau himself has stated, the film takes pains to frame its animals in certain ways, particularly by obscuring their mouths, so they seem realistic even when talking.
While The Jungle Book and other stories containing both human and animal characters may benefit from a heightened sense of realism, allowing both human and non-humans to occupy the same frame, The Lion King is ill-suited to this same over-attachment to reality. The story of The Lion King is fabulistic to its core and such a story by tradition all but mandates its characters act and appear, at least to an extent, like people. If a story contains animals with human-like mannerisms inhabiting a world of human-like values and institutions, we naturally expect their appearances to reflect this same degree of anthropomorphism. Thus, attempting to both faithfully recreate the heavily fabulistic original and make it as lifelike as possible risks becoming an exercise in contradiction. One cannot have both Aesop and a documentary film inhabit the same body without tension.
Human and Animal
If The Lion King, by its very nature, encourages anthropomorphism, something the critical reviews seem to expect, does that mean any story involving or focusing on non-humans does as well? It depends. We expect to see versions of ourselves in stories like The Lion King or Aesop’s fables because they ask us to do so. They serve as a literary reflection. To return to Theon, although we know a mythos is a false story, we should still see some truth, some alētheia, and that becomes easier if we can see something of ourselves in the story. In contrast, were a story to truly be about non-humans per their non-humanness, would anthropomorphization be as necessary as in a story like The Lion King?
Anthropomorphism certainly does make empathizing with non-humans easier. We seem naturally hardwired to prefer beings that look like us. Researchers have suggested that part of the domestication process of dogs resulted from their evolution of childlike (paedomorphic) facial expressions, which appeal directly to humans and gave them a selective advantage living among us. In film, while anthropomorphizing animals and other non-humans has been a staple of animation - The Brave Little Toaster (1987) might be its most extreme manifestation - its use in live-action has become more and more developed in recent years. The reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, which centers around the struggles of a group of hyper-intelligent apes, heavily relies on motion capture technology to give its apes, particularly their leader, Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) human-like speech, mannerisms, and facial expressions.
The degree and manner to which characters are anthropomorphized, in any medium, stems from the nature and genre of their story. Whereas completely non-anthropomorphized characters, as in the case of District 9 (2009), may suit a sci-fi film steeped in political and social commentary, stories in which animals serve as stand-ins for humans require human-like animals. Thus, for an Aesop-inspired story, and especially for one geared towards children and general audiences like The Lion King, too much realism works against the film’s interests by creating a divide between audience and character where there should be solidarity and, ultimately, humanity.
Header Image: Etching by W. Hollar for a fable by Aesop. (Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia).