The Problem of Hyperrealism in The Jungle Book & The Lion King

Curator's Note

A new trend in Disney animation are movies that look like Live action, but are almost completely computer generated. The two most striking examples are The Jungle Book (2016) and The Lion King (2019), both directed by Jon Favreau. Both are visually hyperrealistic remakes of beloved cel-animated films that, however, use different approaches in adaptation.

The Jungle Book is a rather loose adaptation of the 1967 film. The characters have similar functions in the narrative, although there are major differences in character traits: Baloo for example is interpreted as a slacker and a lovable jerk (much like voice actor Bill Murray’s persona in many of his movies) and Louie is portrayed as a sinister mob boss (voiced by Christopher Walken with his signature New York-accent). Only a few of the famous songs are adapted. Thus, the focus is shifted from a muscial revue to an engaging coming-of-age narrative for Mowgli.

The Lion King however is in some scenes even a shot for shot remake of the 1994 film. Every musical sequence from the original is also present in the CG-remake, which creates an aesthetic dissonance: While the subject matter (a Shakespearean political intrigue combined with colorful musical sequences) marks the film as an exaggerated reality, their new hyperrealistic rendition resembles a wild-life documentary. This is especially jarring in the musical sequence “I just can’t wait to be king”: While in the original portrays the world in colorful patterns inspired by African artwork, the remake just shows the lion-cubs prancing around a realistically rendered water hole. The 2019-version narratively does not diverge enough from the original and therefore feels like a less-imaginative copy.

In the original cel-animated films, the reality is inherently abstracted. Disney’s approach to adapt these stories with hyperrealistic computer graphics is aesthetically problematic. In the case of The Jungle Book, Disney and Jon Favreau find a creative solution by reinterpreting the narrative so that the character-driven story matches the hyperrealism. In The Lion King, the same creators do not change the narrative and therefore the cartoon-like reality of the original does not fit the hyperrealistic quality of the computer generated world.

Discussed Works

The Jungle Book, US 1967, Dir.: Wolfgang Reitherman.

The Jungle Book, US 2016, Dir.: Jon Favreau.

The Lion King, US 1994, Dir.: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff.

The Lion King, US 2019, Dir.: Jon Favreau.


I'm very interested in your comparison of animation aesthetics, Jannik. Very thought-provoking! At the end of your post, when you bring up abstraction and hypperrealism, it made me think of some of the great cultural studies work on animation aesthetics in the 20th Century, such as Esther Leslie's Hollywood Flatlands, as well as the critical writings of industry insiders like Amid Amidi (for example, his book Cartoon Modern). So, who are you reading as you investigate animation aesthetics in our current moment? Thanks for this!

--Carolyn Elerding

Thank you very much for your comment and your literature recommendations.

I'm currently re-reading Maureen Furniss' Art in Motion. Animation Aesthetics and Sebastian Richters Digitaler Realismus (Digital Realism), which has not yet been published in English. Lev Manovich's Language of New Media, Barbara Flückiger's Visual Effects and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's Remediation are also very interesting for my PhD-project.

Another very good read is the paper Final Fantasy or The Incredibles. Ultra-realistic animation, aesthetic engagement and the uncanny valley by Matthew Butler and Lucie Joschko in which they show that hyperrealistic environments combined with cartoonish characters are more pleasing to the audience than an overall hyperrealistic style.

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