Disney's live-action Little Mermaid is about to be released, and fans have been scratching their heads over the character design shared so far. Gone is the charm of the creatures found in the cartoon film, with Flounder, Sebastian and chums now transformed into painfully real versions of their former selves.
But this isn't the first time Disney has run into criticism for its animal character design. In fact, Disney has often missed the mark with its approach to designing realistic animals in its live-action/CGI remakes.
I take a look at the design of animal characters in recent live-action films and ask – does Disney need to change its tactic? Perhaps the animation giant needs to take a look at our character design tips to get back on track (joking, not-joking).
01. The Lion King
The Lion King was heavily criticised for its characters, which were deemed far too realistic to convey any of the emotion or personality of the original animated film (which had us all sobbing throughout, let's be honest). Though the photorealistic production values were high, and the film a spectacle, not even Beyoncé could cut through the bland faces to create the kind of emotion we needed during Can You Feel The Love Tonight?
Sure, it's a cute lion cub but it it really Simba? And the flustered panic of Zazu is totally missing from the CGI bird. Don't get me wrong, the quality of the CG and VFX in this Lion King live action remake is outstanding (see how Lion King CGI: Behind the scenes feature on how it was made) but somewhere along the way the 'computer said no'. Disney missed the mark here.
02. The Lady and the Tramp
The Lady and the Tramp character design is some of the most strange you'll see on this list, and frankly, I'd wiped it from memory (and for good reason). Disney changed tactics somewhat with this release, using real dogs but augmenting their faces with CGI to make them talk and express emotions with facial ticks and winks. This might bring movement to their doggy faces, but the result is unsettling and does little to improve on the personality-less Lion King character design.
The lovestruck gaze of the original characters just isn't quite there in the new version, however much treatment has been given to the real pooches – people just didn't like it. And, actually, watching two dogs share a plate of spaghetti just feels a bit weird. Sorry Disney, but this one is best forgotten.
03. The Little Mermaid
We may only have seen initial footage of the 2023 remake of Little Mermaid, but fans haven't been impressed so far. Though we can see some nice CGI work on the faces of the animal characters, it's hard to imagine being able to capture the cuteness of Flounder using a real fish. The posters definitely don't do the footage justice, but we wonder what the purpose of recreating all these characters in a slightly-less-successful-way really is?
04. The Jungle Book (2016)
The Jungle Book was actually released first, but it seemed unfair to put it at the top of the list as it fared a lot better than the Big Three live-action missteps. The Jungle Book is generally considered a masterpiece from a design perspective (though I do miss the songs). But the character design turned out... only okay.
There facial expressions are subtle as in the Lion King, but there is possibly just enough movement to convey personality and, dare I say, feeling? Or maybe the inclusion of a human character has helped to inject the depth of character that's missing elsewhere, as it dilutes the minimal facial expression provided by the animals. Either way, The Jungle Book pleased critics in a way subsequent films haven't, even if I'd argue the animal characters have some of the same issues as the other films.
Besides the issue of the unoriginality of an endless rosta of live-action remakes, if they don't add anything to the experience of the first, I'd tentatively assert that they should be left alone.
I'd argue these characters, which were so expertly crafted in traditional animation, don't need to be brought up to date in this slightly creepy, somewhat charmless way. We hope Disney finds a happy medium or goes in another direction.
Want to explore more Disney or get started on a career in animation? Read our feature on Disney's principles of animation to discover the same advice pro animators get give. Or, take a look at the best laptops for animation and begin working on your own animated shorts.