The Lion King is just another in a long string of successes for Disney. Despite earning mixed reviews, the remake of the seminal 1994 animated classic has already become one of this year's most profitable films. As of this past weekend, it has earned $1.33 billion at the global box office. This means it's become one of the biggest films ever produced by the studio, regardless of which filmmaking style it's considered to be in; an ambiguity that has certainly become a talking point.
Whether it's animation or live-action, it's out-performed either previous record holder in that particular category: Frozen and Beauty & The Beast respectively. But Disney doesn't seem to consider the life-like, computer-generated film to be strictly an animated film, even calling it "live-action" in its official press release to celebrate the remake earning $1 billion at the box office. So why does Disney consider The Lion King to be live-action?
PEN AND INK, DRAG AND DROP
The technology used in The Lion King is the greatest expansion of the techniques Disney has been perfecting over the last few years. An earlier model was utilized by director Jon Favreau for The Jungle Book. This same tech was upgraded for The Lion King, which Favreau also directed. But while The Jungle Book did feature live-action performances (notably the young boy Mowgli), The Lion King is almost completely computer-generated. There's only one live-action shot in the entire film, which purposefully looks almost the same as the rest of the visuals in the film.
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This is the only real shot in #TheLionKing. There are 1490 rendered shots created by animators and CG artists. I slipped in one single shot that we actually photographed in Africa to see if anyone would notice. It is the first shot of the movie that begins The Circle of Life.
But no matter how life-like the animation is, it's still technically animation. Favreau and his team still constructed 99% of the film with the newest advances in animation. In an Instagram post, Favreau openly says there are nearly 1500 rendered shots in the film constructed by a number of animators. But Favreau (and Disney for that matter) really don't want to call the film an animated movie, even if it technically is an animated film.
FAVREAU & DISNEY'S CASE
For Favreau's part, he's made it clear why he thinks The Lion King is difficult to describe purely as an animated film. Speaking with SlashFilm earlier this year, the director explained that the connotations that come with animated Disney films were something he wanted to avoid.
"Well, it’s difficult because it's neither. It depends what standard you're using. Because there's no real animals and there's no real cameras and there's not even any performance that's being captured that's underlying data that's real. Everything is coming through the hands of artists.
"But to say it’s animated I think is misleading as far as what the expectations might be. And it also changes the way you sit and watch it. [...] Hopefully, you could just watch it without it being introduced. If we put up that Rafiki footage and didn't say what it was [...] it causes you to be present and mindful and pay attention because you're trying to figure out what you're looking at. And that's a great disposition to be in as an audience member."
Favreau has been consistent in his belief that the film is as realistic as possible. But if he wanted to avoid those outright comparisons to the original film, he should have deviated more from the original animated film. Many sequences and scenes from the original are replicated, including the many bright and poppy musical numbers from the original film. As a result, the film does ultimately feel extra animated, despite what Favreau intended for realism.
For Disney, the reason might be more practical. The live-action Disney films have typically been huge successes. This new incarnation of the Disney classics could be grouped together if they're all considered the same style. By calling The Lion King live-action, Disney could theoretically say it's another success in the line. It would help the live-action look better following the subpart results of Dumbo earlier this year.
This would also leave Frozen as the biggest animated film in the company's history, which sets it up to potentially break that record later this year with November's Frozen 2. It would give Disney an even better overall year than its already earned, despite the three Marvel Cinematic Universe films it's released this year that have broken $1 billion, along with the next Star Wars film.
While Favreau considers the film to be live-action so it doesn't carry specific connotations for the viewing audience, Disney is more likely looking at the project from a business perspective. It's a little disappointing because the animation used for The Lion King is genuinely impressive on a technical level. When it comes time to nominate The Lion King for animated award categories at ceremonies like the Oscars and the Golden Globes, could the live-action label keep the animators receiving some of their due credit?