What is a human expression, and how does that translate into animation? Are realistic looking animals capable of reflecting the emotions that an audience hopes to feel? With two wildly successful films at play and a familiar story, why did audiences connect more with an animated version of Lion King over a live-action version of the same movie?
According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001, on the Science Direct website, one of the first elements to consider is that nonverbal clues play an essential role in communication. The movement and tiny aggressions made with hands, brows, or heavy sighs play a significant role in how emotions read as words do. They speak in subtext and are easily recognized.
Animals don’t have those same traits. They don’t feed these types of signals to amplify their thoughts, and when filming a live-action movie, the lack of an animal’s emotion and expression means that there’s little context. Actors speak words, but without the fine-body movements that go along with those words, they fall empty and flat.
A study was conducted in 2019 with 89 adults and 77 children by Federica Amici of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Juliane Bräuer of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The purpose of the study was to see how well do humans recognize dogs’ emotions. According to Science Daily, “The results of the study showed that, while some dog emotions can be recognized from early on, the ability to reliably recognize dog emotions is mainly acquired through age and experience.”
In Heather Co’s review on When In Manila’s website, she says, “the character emotions failed to shine through the stiff animation of the animals’ faces that was needed to make them appear real. This was something that the original 1994 movie was definitely able to do better with the freedom they had in manipulating their characters’ expressions.” The audience ratings on RottenTomatoes.com supports her opinion, as illustrated in this chart.
When it comes to animation, artists and filmmakers can adapt their art to include these natural movements. Whether they add the depth of a furrowed brow line, a sucked in cheek muscle, or show squinting of the eyes and a widened excitable mouth; it becomes recognizable and relatable to those watching.
At an Association for Psychological Science conference, it was noted by Pete Docter of Pixar Animation Studios that:
“animators use heightened contrasts — highlighting the extreme emotional reactions, getting rid of the smaller, more ambiguous muscle movements and expressions that real people would display — in order to heighten the drama in the story and to more clearly reveal the characters’ personalities.”
As for the famous Lion King movies, the live-action film lacked the context of the expression. Audiences didn’t connect, because the faces of the characters didn’t shift or move in familiar ways that signal there are feelings attached to the words spoken.