The Lion King released in 1994 is widely regarded as Disney’s most beloved classic. Between its first release and a 3D re-release in 2011, it made close to $968 million, with the bulk of that coming from the original 1994 theatrical run. That’s an astounding figure for a hand-drawn 2D animated film based on an original property which Disney added to its ever-expanding library of classics. Now that Disney has embarked on a journey remaking its entire slate of animated classics, it was inevitable that The Lion King receive the same treatment. And it has indeed.
In the case of The Lion King though, the situation has led to a totally unexpected but valid debate: Is The Lion King remake live action or CGI? The debate has been wide-ranging since the time it was announced, and is largely fuelled by the movie not having any real human characters. With all animals being redendered digitally through CGI, the likes of Mufasa, Simba, Scar, Timon, Pumba, Zazu and the Hyenas are not going to be portrayed by real creatures. There was some doubt as to whether motion capture will be used, as in Andy Serkis’ Mowgli but that’s no longer the case as well.
The debate has seen people swinging on both sides of the fence. The argument for it being CGI is fairly obvious: everything has been rendered using computers and digital effects through 3D animation software (Maya, 3DS Max, or whatever Disney uses). Nothing has been shot against blue screens and no live characters are present whatsoever furthering the notion that this is indeed a CGI production, much like Pixar’s many adventures in the same realm like Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, Frozen and many others.
The argument on the other side has stemmed more from the quality of CGI in question. Normally, CGI movies look like they’re CGI and don’t go the extra mile to look photoreal, except for in a few shots. Wall-E is a classic example; the movie featured several shots in its opening 20 minutes that looked flat out photoreal, and even featured a live-action element or two in the form of some old TV footage playing in the background, but the rest of it quickly descended into resembling a traditional CGI movie. The problem with The Lion King and its photorealistic effects is that it doesn’t give the illusion of being CGI to a general audience, even though everyone inherently knows its CGI because animals can’t talk. And that’s the point; everyone believes its CGI because of animal behavior and not because of how the movie looks, making the case for The Lion King as a live action movie.
Disney recently opened up a new side to the story. In an exclusive interview to The Hollywood Reporter, Disney film chief Sean Bailey heralded The Lion King as a new kind of movie. While the quote was ripped to shreds all over the internet, I feel he might have a point there. But first, here’s the exchange in question.
… It is a new form of filmmaking. Historical definitions don’t work. It uses some techniques that would traditionally be called animation, and other techniques that would traditionally be called live action. It is an evolution of the technology Jon used in Jungle Book.Disney Film Chief Sean Bailey To The Hollywood Reporter
Have we seen CGI movies before? Sure. Have we seen live-action movies before? You bet. It’s been the norm. But have we seen a full-length CGI feature film but with photorealistic CGI? Not quite. We’ve had plenty of blockbuster movies where practically every other scene was touched with effects. Movies like Avatar, Tron: Legacy and Avengers: Infinity War had lots and lots of effects shots numbering in the thousands. And yet, not all of it was CGI. And then there are movies like Up, Frozen, How To Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda that were full blown CGI. But not all of it was photorealistic CGI, no matter how close it came.
The closest comparisons have been to Disney’s own The Jungle Book as well was Warner Bros.-Netflix’s recently released Mowgli.
For all we know, The Lion King could indeed be a new form of filmmaking, one that sees entire productions rendered through photorealistic CGI. It can start off with animals, but could go on to include fully digitized humans as well, much like the James Cameron produced Alita: Battle Angel which sees a digital title character in the lead (due out in February). It could very well change the landscape of filmmaking if it’s possible to make a photorealistic CGI movie within the stipulated $200 – $300 million production budget, which is what I’m hoping The Lion King cost to make.
Even so, given the current state of affairs, calling The Lion King a CGI movie makes more sense than calling it live action. If you think about it, movies like Kung Fu Panda were referred to as computer-animated movies and though one could make the case that the CGI wasn’t photorealistic, there were plenty of shots where surrealism shone through the cinematography. It’s more likely though the general public will continue referring to The Lion King as live-action, simply because it is a part of Disney’s grand plan to remake its animated classics and because all of those other remakes are being referred to as live-action, it’s just easier to slot The Lion King into that category as well.
In topics like these, it’s great to hear reader feedback. So what do you think? Is The Lion King a live-action movie according to you? Or is it better referred to as a CGI movie? Or should we call it something else entirely? Let me know your thoughts about this highly debatable topic in the comments below.
The Lion King stars Donald Glover as an adult Simba with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumba, Billy Eichner as Timon, John Oliver as Zazu, with Beyonce as Nala and James Earl Jones returning to voice Mufasa. The Lion King will release worldwide on July 19, 2019.