‘The Lion King’ : Reading Animal Emotions or the Importance of Eyebrows

Tricolor Collie. AKC website.

Not everyone can read the motions of animals, even our supposedly best friend: Dogs. One thing you might notice about dogs is some of them have coloration that give them things that most animals, except humans, do not have: eyebrows. Seriously. Eyebrows are often under-rated, but in animated features where animals are anthropomorphized, eyebrows are essential and this is one thing missing in the live-action “The Lion King.”

I thought of this watching the new live-action “The Lion King,” because of another studio’s animated feature: DreamWorks’ “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”  While the animators attempted to use horse body language throughout the movie–using a Kiger mustang stallion, “Donner” as a model, they also did two things. First, the horses were designed to have both eyes visible (a characteristic more common with predators). secondly, they gave the horses big eyebrows.

James Baxter explained in an article posted on ANIMATIONWorld, “It was a real challenge to give Spirit a face that could display readable emotions.  We did some design tricks, shifting his eyes a little further forward on the head, so you can see both eyes more readily, which makes his expressions easier to read. And we gave him nice big eyebrows — which horses don’t have.”

In the live-action “The Lion King,” the lions and hyenas do not have eyebrows. In the animated feature, Simba clearly does. Pumba does not, but he does have a brow that almost acts as one and Timon does. Scar, not only has eyebrows, he has a smoky eye–the kind usually reserved for women in live-action movies. So does the adult Simba, but he has large, round eyes while Scar has small, slit eyes. That signals sinister in the animated feature, but it’s the worn, beaten up visage, the lack of majestic mane that signals the evil in the live action.

Eyebrows are not how one reads animal emotions. Tails and ears, posture and vocalizations are what provide emotional cues. But if people can’t read the emotion of the familiar (dogs), then how does one expect them to understand the unfamiliar? I thought I could read the cues provided in live-action version of “The Lion King,” but that doesn’t mean I want to hear live-action lions sing. Besides the problematic story, I worry about the effect this will have on the worsening relationship people have with animals in the wild, but that is another essay. If everyone cannot decipher a dog’s emotions, then expecting people to decipher the emotions or intent of other animals is an unreasonable expectation that must either be bridged or told in a way that fits the medium. In animation, the eyebrows help convey human emotions in animals because we as humans understand the body language. In a live-action-ish animated feature like “The Lion King,” the realism requires some other device. That device is lacking in this 2019 version of “The Lion King,” resulting in a beautifully realized live-action animation devoid of emotional content.

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