With over $1 billion grossed at the international box office, the bag for Jon Favreau’s CGI rendition of the Disney classic The Lion King is safe and secure. However, the animator of the original 1994 classic is not mincing words on the remake.
In an interview with HuffPost, David Stephan, along with two other animators from the original flick, Alexander Williams and Dave Bossert, revealed their thoughts on the remake, from the character design to the voice performance and even visual effects. Out of the thirteen animators who contributed to the film, these were the only three that the publication could reach for interview. While Bossert and Williams were mostly positive about the remake, Stephan was seemingly not with it at all. “If you polled the crew of the original ‘Lion King,’ most of them would say, ‘Why? Did you really have to do that?’ It kind of hurts,” he said.
Stephan, who played a pivotal part in the “Circle of Life” sequence in the original 1994 film, expressed disappointment in Disney’s decision to greenlight a remake of The Lion King. “It’s sort of sad that the stockholder is now in the room deciding what movies get made. … Disney’s now taken the cover off, and it’s now in your face: ‘Yeah, we just want to make money.’ That’s disappointing as an artist, from a studio that was founded on originality and art,” he said. Bossert was more optimistic, saying, “I view it as what Walt [Disney] did when he was building the company. He constantly reused and recycled great stories. It’s very evident if you look at when he built Disneyland. He took properties like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella and he created immersive theme-park attractions, and all the merchandise and books and other things that came along with it. He kind of invented that stuff. … The fact is, they’re taking these great stories and they’re creating them in different entertainment arenas.”
Stephan also did not mince his words when it came to the performances of the voice actors in the remake, saying, “I thought the performances were weak. I mean, they were so wooden. [The filmmakers] put themselves into a corner when you do that realistically. You’re really stuck to what the real physics are in real life, or people aren’t going to buy it. But there were a few scenes where there were a couple of expressions and suddenly it was a little more alive.” Williams and Bossert, again, were much more positive in their reactions to the performances. Williams said, “They were very, very good. I think they did a really nice job. … These movies are not really made by the actors. They’re probably never on set. They’re taping in recording booths for a few hours, and that’s it. That’s their entire contribution. Obviously it’s a very important contribution, but their actual role in the movie is relatively small compared to the artists who might toil for a few years.”
What seemed to be Stephan’s biggest criticism for the film was its character design, feeling that the scenes depicting Simba (voiced by Donald Glover) were reminiscent of old nature films. “It would jar me out of the film, literally. Especially with little Simba walking around,” he said. “It was too real. And then when he would talk, it reminded me of those old nature films where they would dub the voices over and the lips would move.” Williams was a bit more positive, saying “Certain parts of the animation are breathtaking. These are still hand-crafted films. I mean, forget about the tech. You’ve still got a room full of artists trying to make every pixel look beautiful. It’s not easy to get that right. So I say the tech is part of the message now because it’s so impressive now what can be done. …. It feels like you’re in a David Attenborough world: documentary footage, and yet the animals were talking and emoting.” Bossert didn’t respond like Stephan did to the question, but he did have a critique: “I wish they had a little bit more emotion in the characters’ eyes. If you’ve got animals talking, you can take more liberties with facial expressions. … Really with the eyes more than anything else. When a character is talking, the eyes could open a little more, or an eyebrow could raise a little bit. You’re walking a fine line where you don’t want it to be too cartoony, but I think they could have pushed it a little bit more.”
You can read the full interview with the animators over at HuffPost.