Make no mistake: “The Lion King” is an animated movie. Almost 100 percent. Only one shot, teased director Jon Favreau ahead of the Hollywood world premiere Tuesday night, was filmed live. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel confirmed that it was the first thing they filmed on location in Africa. And it’s a gorgeous shot — but the whole film is photo-real gorgeous, and made within a digital world.
What Favreau and his “Jungle Book” VFX master Rob Legato (“Titanic,” “Hugo”) have achieved with global squadrons of animators from Oscar-winner MPC Film (“Jungle Book,” “Blade Runner 2049”) is an astonishing gamechanger. As IndieWire reported during production, “The Lion King” marks the first keyframe-animated movie shot on a virtual reality set with a live-action aesthetic.
The results are stunning. Aesthetically, Favreau was able to pull together naturalistic animation of wild animals moving their mouths, with voice actors speaking in English and breaking into song. This could have gone wrong in so many ways, and while it may not be a major Oscar player — remakes usually aren’t — Favreau delivers on the tech front, and the music follows suit.
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But this gifted director was also working within Disney corporate mandates for a box office juggernaut — hence the casting of actor-singers Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles Carter as the straight leads, very flat adult Simba and Nala. Every other voice actor is so much richer and more distinctive than they are, from the returning James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his evil brother Scar, to JD McCrary as Young Simba and Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon, who Favreau (a comedy guy going back to his “Elf” days) admitted were the most fun characters to create.
But he didn’t really create them. Appropriately, at the premiere the director paid homage to all the creators of the 1994 classic original — producer Don Hahn and writer Linda Woolverton were there — although the movie gives solo “Screenplay By” credit to Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”). While this “Lion King” is not a word-for-word remake — Nala holds her own with Simba in a fight, and the lionesses are mighty warriors — it’s pretty damn close. (The Writers Guild has no jurisdiction over animated films, so in this case, Disney is taking advantage of that categorization.)
The studio’s marketing seeks to differentiate for global moviegoers this “live-action remake” from the 1994 Disney classic, and audiences will flock to see this, despite some inevitable critical brickbats about the film’s commercial-minded conservatism. However, Disney has not decided how to campaign for awards. At the premiere, Favreau leaned into the VR environments as a way to distinguish the movie.
But it’s animated, and should be embraced by the Academy’s Shorts and Animation branch members — some of whom may be threatened by it. It should properly compete against Disney’s own Pixar entry, “Toy Story 4.” Instead, Disney may sell the ground-breaking VR environments for the VFX award won by “Jungle Book,” which did boast a live-action lead actor. All this only serves to underscore the ways that the Academy (dominated by live-action-loving actors) does not reflect the realities of digital moviemaking today. (This year’s Academy member invites were overwhelmingly bigger for both VFX and Shorts and Animation.)
While “The Lion King” 2019 is well-supported by Hans Zimmer’s soaring classical orchestral score, he’s also building on the 1994 original music. The movie not only brings back John and Tim Rice’s great 1994 songs, including the three Oscar-nominees (“Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and winner “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”), but offers two new Original Songs, “Spirit,” written by Beyonce, Ilya Salmanzadeh and Labrinth, and John’s “Never Too Late,” which will compete against his other original from “Rocketman,” “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.”
Beyoncé is already on the case, dropping her single ahead of the soundtrack (July 11) as well as her new album inspired by the film, “The Lion King: The Gift” (July 19). “This is sonic cinema,” she said in a statement. “This is a new experience of storytelling. I wanted to do more than find a collection of songs that were inspired by the film. It is a mixture of genres and collaboration that isn’t one sound. It is influenced by everything from R&B, pop, hip hop and Afro Beat.”
Whichever way Disney goes with their awards campaign — and however the conversation about “The Lion King” continues to evolve — the music branch, at least, should come through.