Animation as a Tool for Expression: Examining the Original and Live Action Lion King

By Charlie Donnelly

Prominent film theorists and filmmakers disagree about the role of animation in cinema, with the philosopher Stanley Cavell claiming that “cartoons are not movies” (Frank 24), a stark contrast with educator Hannah Frank’s conjecture that “all works of celluloid animation [are] photographic in origin” (Frank 23). While we’ve discussed the role of animation in cinema in class with varying opinions, there are certainly instances when animation possesses an expressive quality lacking in traditional photographic cinema, especially seen in the differences between the original 1994 animated version of The Lion King and the 2019 live action remake. Although some feel that live action possesses the most varied capabilities as a mode of cinema, I will argue that animation has unique powers of expression in creating vivid and recognizable characters, establishing connotation and theme, as well as creating heavily stylized worlds with their own distinct visual iconography.

In animation as opposed to live action film, the possibility for completely expressing a character is possible through artistic choice. Rather than being confined to typage, or casting characters (usually based on facial features) to best convey the story of a character, an artist can choose to create a specific and nuanced character without the confines of casting. Hannah Frank’s essay Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography concurs with this point, as she claims that animation offers a “plasmatic and limitless world” (Frank 25). With this limitless world comes an unbounded possibility for character creation, as animators are not confined to the proportions of a typical face, or in this case lion.

Without the pressure of realism, animators are free to create characters that are instantly recognizable because of their extreme proportions or coloring. An example of this is seen in the differences between the animated and live action Scar. In creating a villain, animators must differentiate their character, and they typically do this by creating a persona that stirs fear in the audience.

The two clips below are the analogous sequences of Scar’s ultimate evil: he betrays Mufasa, sinking his claws into his paws and sending him to his death. In the live action sequence, we see two very similar (albeit realistic) looking lions, lit in an even and neutral manner. Since a lion’s natural habitat would be a savannah or open landscape, the live action shot of Scar lacks the high-contrast red of the animated background. Instead, colors must be faithfully reproduced to complete the realistic experience. This clip is overall less foreboding–we are almost observing a natural phenomenon that is not unlike a scene from a lion documentary as opposed to the recreation of a fictional blockbuster.


Above: Scar’s ultimate betrayal of Mufasa in the 2019 live action version of The Lion King. In the live action version, the colors are less vibrant, presumably to be more realistic. In this particular case the dull eyes make Scar seem less foreboding than in the animated version.


Above: Scar’s ultimate betrayal of Mufasa in the 1994 animated version of The Lion King.

When we examine the animated clip (above), we instantly observe the dark and moody colors. Scar’s tousled mane is dark and frames an angular and villainous face. The colors of each character further influence our perception–while the animated Scar has piercing yellow eyes that correspond to a reddish yellow hue (shown below), the live action scar is confined to an eye color that is realistic for the animal and the lighting (so more of a dark brown). While Scar’s eyes have red undertones (with an rgb code of rgb(242, 194, 51))), a swatch of the live action eye color appears to be a very dark brown.

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Above: A comparison of the (original 1994 version) eye color (left) and the (2019 remake) color (right).  The yellow on the left has red undertones that mesh well with the background and overall tone of the scene.

The facial expression of the characters further enhances the emotional responses of viewers: while the animated Scar’s thin mouth is contorted into a harsh and downward sloping frown, the live action scar is not as heavily stylized. His mouth moves as we would expect a lion’s mouth to move, thus our perception of emotions is impaired because we are watching something real that we (or at least most of us) know very little about. Thus, in animating Scar the filmmakers had the power to instigate emotions in the viewer that are not possible when viewing the live action version–a simultaneous fear and compassion for two lions. Since we have effectively compared two frames and sequences that are equal in all except mode of cinema (animation or live action), it is reasonable to conclude that the clip that makes us feel more has a higher power of expression–in this case, animation has more potential.

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Above: A side-by-side comparison of the animated Scar and the live action Scar’s facial expressivity.

Having considered animation’s capacity for characterization, it seems logical to explore how animation can enhance an entire landscape or scene. One of the subtlest yet most tense scenes involves Simba’s and Scar’s walk through a valley before Scar’s ultimate betrayal of Mufasa. As Scar advises Simba on his roar and saunters off, we are meant to feel a sense of doom: trouble is coming. While this is effectively conveyed in the animated version, the live action The Lion King lacks the same stylization that is so effective at conveying emotion.



Above: A stronger sense of foreboding is conveyed in the animated The Lion King.

The initial wide-angle shot sets the scene similarly in both the live action and animated film–the major difference being an increased color contrast in the animated version. In the shots following this one, the animated version far surpasses the expressivity of the live action remake. This is first seen in terms of dynamic movement. We can observe the differences in extreme character stance, a feature that is unique to animation (once again because of its “plasmatic” nature).

One way to measure this dynamism is via “lines of action” and how they interact. The animated version is largely free of the confinements of reality, and thus is able to represent conflict via extreme character pose. Thus, Simba’s and Scar’s lines of action appear as intersecting lines, and Scar’s exaggerated lean towards Simba conveys a sense of foreboding.

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Above: The lines of action of the two characters are exaggerated in the animated version to create a sense of tension and conflict.

Although the live action remake presents more realistic poses, a commitment to representing reality is synonymous with a decrease in creative possibilities–characters must appear and move about the frame in a manner that conforms to audience expectation. An attempt to convey lines of action in the live action remake is seen below. The dynamic and foreboding pose that Scar makes in the cartoon is lost in the live action version, presumably because it is not a representation of reality.


Above: Simba and Scar must be portrayed realistically, and thus their stances are not exaggerated or out of the ordinary. Instead, the two lines of action almost seem to work together, which contrasts with the tense dynamic of the scene.

Aside from elasticity of pose, the animated version possesses a flexibility of facial expression that is simply not captured when attempting to faithfully represent nature. This “plasmatic” (Frank 25) quality is described in Hannah Frank’s essay, and is perhaps best seen in Scar’s face as he converses with Simba in the valley.

Scar’s head movements and eyes are able to communicate two very different messages based on how much they move—while his head sympathetically turns to Simba, his eyes roll around the shot, ultimately narrowing into evil slits. This dynamism of facial expression far surpasses Scar’s range in the live action remake. The analogous clip of Scar is shown below—here, it is difficult to detect what emotion is being conveyed.


Above: Scar’s face contorts in unimaginable and distinctly unrealistic ways as he speaks, creating a sense of unrest in the audience.


Above: The live-action version cannot use such extreme facial expressions to convey foreboding.

Although we did not discuss the role of animation as lending itself to iconography in class, when discussing The Lion King and any remake we must consider how universal the original characters have become—one might even say iconic. While the storyline certainly contributes to their likeability and general fame, I also feel that they are iconic because they are abstractions of reality, while the real representations of lions that feature in the live action remake do not have the same universal recognition. Since the live action remake is nearly identical in storyline and cinematography, it seems reasonable that the major difference lies in animation vs. live action: I have seen sticker Simbas and Scar shirts from the cartoon version, but where is the same adoration for the “real” lions from the live action remake? Perhaps in creating a real lion, the line between human and animal became a more rigid one—the feelings of betrayal, empathy, and courage that we loved to resonate with in the original became masked behind a realistic façade that communicated one thing: “this is a real lion.” It is also worth noting that I, for one, was originally in disbelief at the realistic appearance of the lion, then flabbergasted when they started to speak. Having visually established several lions, I internally ruled out the possibility of empathizing with them or hearing their voices. This dissonance was a vague distraction throughout watching the film—rather than becoming fully immersed in the story, I was constantly wondering: “How are these animals talking?” The animated version presents no such dissonance because the characters are not presented as real to begin with, and animation as a style (particularly Disney’s style) is known for giving life and voice to objects and creatures.

Lastly, it is important to address the synergy between live action and animation that is explored in Disney’s remake of The Lion King. Although I have referred to the film as live action throughout this essay and Disney also maintains its status as live action, all but one shot are composed of Computer Generated Imagery. This means that to create a very lifelike and “real” image, Disney has used animation techniques: what we thought was real is actually maximally unreal. André Bazin makes a claim about the conventional movie, and by extension live action, in his renowned essay What is Cinema?, in which he claims that “the camera alone holds the key to this world” (this world being one of supreme natural beauty). The images created throughout The Lion King (the remake) are certainly fantastical, but can we confidently assert that the camera alone is capable of creating these beautiful worlds for audiences? It seems that the animator, as well, can create these worlds, and perhaps new modes of cinema should similarly be evaluated based on their “worldbuilding” capacity.


Above: Can we use animation as a tool to achieve something similar to reality?

It must be noted that with advanced animation technique, the “live-action” version may very well capture a sense of wonder about nature, even by expressing what is “natural” through Computer Generated Imagery. For example, the two sequences involving Simba and the iguana convey different things in the cartoon and live action version. In the original film, Simba scowls with annoyance at the Iguana—there is no reason for wonder or mystery, the iguana is an object for roar practice. However, in the live action remake Simba is awestruck at the iguana in all of its vivid glory, this subtle difference indicating  the possibility of hyper-advanced Computer Generated Imagery (which is still a form of animation even if it pursues reality). In pursuing reality via animation, we are able to marvel at a vivid nature scene with Simba.



Above: An iguana is animated very differently and elicits a different response from Simba in the two films.

Thus, we have observed that animation possesses unique capabilities of expression, especially in fashioning vivid and well-known characters, implying tone and theme, and lastly in creating distinct, stylized, and even iconic worlds. It is impossible (or at the very least very difficult) to establish whether animation as an entire medium is more expressive than live action, however we have considered its effectiveness in communicating the story of The Lion King. While I can’t fully disprove Cavell’s claim that “cartoons are not cinema,” I can confidently say that animation has a similar if not greater capacity to build worlds for the audience—and isn’t that what cinema is all about?


Bazin, André. “What Is Cinema?” Cinémas: Revue Détudes Cinématographiques, Translated by Timothy Barnard, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, p. 211., doi:10.7202/039280ar.

Frank, Hannah. “Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography.” Animation, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp. 23–39., doi:10.1177/1746847715623689.


Ha, Anthony. “How the New ‘Lion King’ Came to Life.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 30 July 2019,

All clips/frame grabs from Dropbox.


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