For a mostly forgettable movie season, 2019 might best be remembered as the summer we left the Uncanny Valley for good.
Uncanny Valley, for the uninitiated, refers to that queasy middle ground in computer-generated imagery wherein real-life actors and their digitized on-screen avatars mesh to create a not-quite-unreal, not-quite-real being — a fish-nor-fowl creature whose liminal strangeness is creepy instead of cool. Epitomized by such early experiments as “The Polar Express,” “Speed Racer” and “The Last Airbender,” Uncanny Valley has been the scourge of CGI animation — at least until now, when a new promised land seems to be at hand.
Our Moses, unsurprisingly, turns out to be the Mouse House. Nearly a century ago, Disney introduced a then-revolutionary character named Mickey Mouse; in recent years the company has acquired such creative and corporate behemoths as Pixar, Marvel Studios and, most recently, Twentieth Century Fox to become the most powerful force in Hollywood. Last month, the studio released “Toy Story 4,” yet another installment of the Pixar franchise that launched a revolution in computer-generated imagery with “Toy Story” in 1995.
“Toy Story 4” was remarkable, not just in finding a pleasant balance between nostalgia and novelty (Hi, Forky!), but in its deep and richly detailed visuals: After decades of working out the challenges of rendering such subtle elements as fur and lighting effects, the engineers at Pixar — which was acquired by Disney in 2006 — poured everything they learned into “Toy Story 4,” creating an aesthetic that transcended what we think of as animation, from the way the light struck Bo Peep’s porcelain cheeks to the barely discernible motes wafting through the dusty air of an antique shop.
With “The Lion King,” Disney has once again pushed the parameters of the form. Although some have called the new movie a “live-action” version of the hand-drawn original, it’s almost entirely composed of digital images (the film’s director, Jon Favreau, reportedly included one non-CGI shot to see if anyone notices the difference).
This iteration of “The Lion King” — which, like “Toy Story” turns 25 this year — is the product of a painstaking production that involved crew members traveling to Kenya, capturing still and video images of the area’s animals, landscapes, wind patterns and unique light, converting those images to terabytes of data, then animating them to the vocal performances of the film’s star-studded human cast. The result thrusts viewers into what looks like a real African savanna, with an ensemble of animal players that might have just stepped out of a David Attenborough documentary.
Just as Pixar used movies like the first “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Cars” as workshops for the effects they would refine in “Toy Story 4,” Favreau’s part CGI, part live-action adaptation of “The Jungle Book” in 2016 served as a launchpad for technology that would gain in sophistication and throw-weight over the succeeding years. This time, he even used virtual reality to walk around his digital “sets,” staging shots and camera movements exactly as he would have for a non-animated movie.
On the heels of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” winning an Oscar for its wildly inventive homage to old-school, ink-on-paper comic books, it’s clear that animation has entered a new age. Watching “Toy Story 4” and “The Lion King” is an even more astonishing experience, and also a slightly disorienting one, inviting questions as to what, exactly, we’re seeing. While not strictly live-action, it can’t be described as animation in any traditional sense. Is it hyper-immersive-virtual-photorealism? Live-actimation? Animaction?
And, perhaps more to the point, in service to what? Although “The Lion King” has received its share of positive reviews, naysayers have seen the same “dead eyes” in Simba and Mufasa as bedeviled Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express,” accusing Favreau of reducing their cherished childhood fairy tale to an impressive but impersonal stunt.
I had a different reaction. Watching the “The Lion King” reminded me less of a soulless facsimile of a video game than a BBC television show I grew up with in the 1960s called “Tales of the Riverbank,” in which a gentle-mannered narrator gave voice to a hamster, rat and frog as the real-life creatures on-screen went about their natural business (well, natural if you count piloting a toy speedboat). Rather than anthropomorphic facial expressions, both “Tales of the Riverbank” and the new “Lion King” rely on the vocal performances — and viewers themselves — to provide the emotion.
Seen in that context, “The Lion King” is a kind of newfangled throwback that, while technologically breathtaking, is also kind of . . . basic. In keeping with the film’s stirring opening number, Disney has used next-level tech to come full circle, comforting audiences with a familiar and beloved narrative, and distracting them from recognizing that, so far at least, even their most dazzling new bottles are mostly being used to package old wine.
The studio’s business model has always centered on refurbishing its core intellectual properties and finding ways to extend their individual brands. In the case of “Toy Story 4,” that mission was acquitted not just with spectacular visuals but through the fundamentals of story and character. With “The Lion King,” Favreau executed a beat-for-beat reenactment in which verisimilitude was the chief draw. Whatever we call it — animation, live-action or a computer-generated portmanteau in between — this is what we’ll call movies in a Disney-dominated Hollywood. As for photographing real-life actors portraying people in original, surprising, emotionally affecting human-scale stories? Now, that would be uncanny.