Some of the most memorable, iconic images in children’s media from the last century can be attributed to animation, two dimensional in particular. Cinderella’s Princess transformation, the Iron Giant’s flight into space, Spirited Away‘s world of ghosts and monsters; all of these moments were created not with expensive sets or ultra-realism, but through lines and colour alone, painstakingly sketched and put into motion. While popular live-action franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are able to create spectacular visuals in a more tangible way, the achievements of 2D animation stand out as unique and irreplicable – a valuable medium unto itself.
Which begs the question: why do we need all these live-action remakes? Of course, I could cut the article short here and just say ‘Disney wants your money’ – which is far from wrong – but we’re still left with what this all means for the animated originals. It’s not like they’re going anywhere; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if people were now more tempted than ever to purchase a Disney DVD box set and rewatch these classics. But my worry is less about whether the animated versions will remain in the popular consciousness, and more on how these remakes falsely recontextualize what now seem to be treated as first drafts.
Take Beauty and the Beast (2017), a film that was relatively well received, but that adds very little to the beloved, Oscar-nominated material director Bill Condon adapted. Most sets, characters, and costume designs, such as that of the Beast himself and of Belle’s famed yellow ballgown, are lifted straight out of the animated counterpart – a faithful ‘reimagining’, but not a necessary one. This is to say nothing of the narrative, which remains essentially identical in both its progression and themes – beauty is on the inside, a happy ending, etc. Lindsay Ellis explains her own issues with the film brilliantly in her YouTube video essay, but I’ll quickly try to summarise my own feelings here: reinterpreting the film as live action while changing none of the core elements of what makes up the original implies that the first was inherently inferior in some way, and required ‘fixing’.
This isn’t more evident than in the trailer for one of the most anticipated redos, The Lion King (2019). Others have already criticized the shot for shot similarities between the old and the new, especially in the ‘circle of life’ set piece, suggesting a lack of imagination or boldness on the part of the director Jon Favreau, and I certainly agree with this view. All it does is further legitimize the idea that the beautiful, vibrant original was somehow lesser due to its careful, effective facial abstraction, or its bold use of blocking oranges and yellows – or, perhaps in their eyes, a failed attempt to look like real animals. Perhaps the most egregious example of the studio’s dearth of appreciation for the medium of cartoons is the recently released posters, in which four of the lion characters are barely distinguishable, let alone memorable or emotionally compelling.
You don’t need to be able to count the hairs on Simba’s cheek to understand his pain at the loss of Mufasa, or his determination and eventual growth in overcoming Scar. Seeing the detailed carvings on Lumiere’s candelabra body gives a brief, shallow sense of visual wonder, but doesn’t truly add to the character’s charisma. I respect and admire the animators who put hundreds of hours of work into making these characters look and seem as close to our sensory experience as possible, but in my opinion, that isn’t what animation, or cinema as a whole, is necessarily about. Rather than attempting to fruitlessly ensnare realism, mistaking it for inherent prestige or poignancy, I believe that we should sometimes look beyond what we see, and try to create something fresh and resonant – the medium of 2D animation serves as the perfect tool for this task.