Disney’s got a great circle of life going with the hybridization of its animated classics.
It’s a different aesthetic, thanks to virtual production: animation has become more like live-action and live-action has become more animated. But it’s intensified with “The Jungle Book” (this years’s VFX Oscar winner) and “Beauty and the Beast.”
While “The Jungle Book” achieved a new level of photographic-based realism, with everything virtual except for Neel Sethi’s real-life Mowgli, “Beauty and the Beast” utilizes more live-action, but also emphasizes photoreal CG characters; the Beast (Dan Stevens), who is performance captured by Digital Domain 3.0, and the enchanted characters that inhabit the castle (created by Framestore).
Read More: Meet ‘The Jungle Book’ VFX Master Rob Legato
Yet the key to both movies is staying true to their original DNA while grounding them in believable and immersive worlds. This way our familiarity with the beloved stories and iconic characters is not disrupted. Fortunately, we believe the interaction of Sethi’s Mowgli and Emma Watson’s Belle with their respective CG characters.
It can be an adjustment to surrender to the re-imaginings of Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book”) and Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast”). But the experiences are made easier for audiences because both directors stay true to the familiar source material. Favreau maintains the essence of Walt Disney’s ethos and Condon embraces the theatricality and musicality of the 1981 musical, which became the first animated Best Picture nominee.
The directors add many new elements as well. Favreau incorporates more detail from the Rudyard Kipling stories and heightens the danger between Mowgli and Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Also, he turns the King Louie temple sequence upside down as an homage to “Apocalypse Now.”
For his part, Condon grounds his world in a real setting: 18th century France. And he goes deeper into the backstories of Belle and the Beast, strengthens their romance, and enhances such supporting characters as brutish suitor Gaston (Luke Evans), his swooning buddie LeFou (Josh Gad), and her artist father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Condon also adds three new songs by Alan Menken to expand the musical component.
But, unlike Favreau, who shot all of the “The Jungle Book” on sound stages in downtown LA, Condon adhered to a more live-action approach at U.K.’s Shepperton Studios, and utilized production designer Sarah Greenwood’s village sets and ornamental French Rococo castle wherever possible.
Crucially, Condon relied on tangible settings to ground his elaborately baroque animated characters, including Lumière (Ewan McGregor), the candelabra butler; Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the mantel clock; Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the wardrobe with a proscenium face; Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), the harpsichord; Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the feather duster; and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), the teapot; and her teacup son, Chip (Nathan Mack).
These characters were treated with exacting period detail and yet anthropomorphized in nuanced ways that allowed us to suspend our disbelief. Even when they all came together for the joyous “Be Our Guest” musical number with fireworks and other flights of fancy, they didn’t seem at all cartoony or out of place with Watson’s Belle. Indeed, the enchanted characters bring to mind the hand-crafted artistry of stop-motion puppets.
Likewise, the naturalistically rendered CG Beast looked believable alongside Watson, especially during the famed ballroom dance, partly because Stevens danced with her on swinging stilts in mo-cap garb. If he hadn’t, of course, the movie would’ve fallen apart.
Again, it demonstrates how sophisticated virtual production has become in blurring the line between live-action and animation, and how dynamic these new Disney interpretations can be when handled with such skill and care.
Favreau has something even bolder in mind for his remake of “The Lion King,” which won’t be a live-action/animation/VFX hybrid but a total virtual production. It’s all CG. Yet the action, the African environments, and the animal characters will all be treated with the same naturalism of the “The Jungle Book” (under the production VFX supervision of three-time Oscar winner Rob Legato).
Only the tone will be different. Favreau wants to retell the same myth but make it look real. It’s keyframe animation but totally unlike the stylized animation we know from Disney and Pixar.
Like “The Jungle Book,” though, the trick will be to avoid messing with our collective memories of what we cherish most about “The Lion King,” the last great 2D movie.
Talk about coming full circle.