On Thanksgiving Day, the first trailer for Disney's upcoming remake of The Lion King arrived. It gave us a really good look at the visuals of the new film, and it has to be said that the characters look remarkably life-like. You'd be forgiven for thinking there were actual animals being used in the movie. However, as far as we know, literally everything in the new Lion King has been generated by a computer, i.e. done artificially. Yet people, including my co-workers here at CinemaBlend, keep calling it a live-action movie. So can we all please stop calling it the "live-action" remake of The Lion King?
It's understandable that we're all defaulting to referring to it in that way. Disney has found incredible success turning many animated classics into actual live-action films. From Maleficent to Beauty and the Beast we've seen many of our favorite Disney characters come to life thanks to actual actors and live performances. There's certainly no shortage of digital effects in these films, but ultimately what separates these new versions from their animated predecessors are the real performances from the likes of Angelina Jolie or Emma Watson.
Disney itself refers to them as "untitled live-action fairy tale" movies when setting them on the release schedule. Then later, these slots are filled with movies that we've been already been referring to as "the live-action Aladdin" or "the live-action Mulan," so it just becomes automatic to refer to the new Lion King as the "live-action Lion King." It's automatic, but it's wrong.
Even in the case of The Jungle Book, the film that is most similar to the forthcoming Lion King, the live-action label was technically accurate. The movie may have only had three credited human performances (Mowgli, infant Mowgli and infant Mowgli's father), but there were still actual actors on a set that interacted with digital animals. The same is also the case with Dumbo. The title character is created digitally, but the cast surrounding him is mostly human.
If this were something like Andy Serkis' forthcoming take The Jungle Book in Mowgli, which uses motion capture rather than strictly digital effects, and thus includes actual people to create all the animal characters, or James Cameron's Avatar, that would be one thing, but that's not the case either.
Unless something has drastically changed in the forthcoming remake, then the new The Lion King movie has no human roles in it. Every role is being portrayed by a computer-generated animal which is only voiced by an actual person. If there aren't any people on the screen, then we can't really call the movie live-action.
To be fair, even Disney isn't helping on this issue. The trailer posted to YouTube specifies that the film is "From Disney Live Action" which is probably there to specify that the film isn't being made by Walt Disney Animation Studios. But that's only because it might otherwise confuse people into thinking that it is, because of the lack of actual people in the film.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the fact that The Lion King isn't a "live-action" movie. The Jungle Book showed us that the computer-generated animals look quite amazing and can be perfectly solid characters in their own right. That movie won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for a reason. If it weren't for the fact that the animals are talking, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were real at first glance.
While the animals might not have been the lead characters of The Jungle Book, their success showed that such a thing was possible. I've always wondered if The Jungle Book was meant to be a proof of concept from the start. I suspect the idea of remaking one of Disney's biggest hits was always the goal, but the plan was to test the technology on a less popular title so as not to tarnish The Lion King if the idea didn't work. Whether or not that that was the case, clearly once it was clear that it did work, applying the concept to The Lion King was the obvious next step.
Maybe we need to come up with a new term for whatever The Lion King remake is. It certainly doesn't look like animation as we would traditionally define it. It looks far more realistic than anything we've seen from Walt Disney Animation or Pixar in recent years. Even if both are recreated by artists in a computer, the skill sets and the design elements are quite different.
Back when animation was still done by drawing image after image to create the illusion of movement, it was clear what it was, but now it's done by drawing inside a computer. What exactly is the difference between that and creating an alien in a live-action movie entirely digitally during post-production?
It does make one wonder just how to classify the movie. Will the new Lion King qualify for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award or not? It likely depends on just how the rules of the award are written, though if it doesn't qualify, then one has to wonder if it should. Does The Lion King expand the concept of animation, or is it some sort new category?
If this technique becomes a widespread way to make film, then it probably deserves its own classification, if for no other reason than traditional animators and post-production digital effects artists probably shouldn't be lumped together, but until then, it's hard to call it anything else. The entire movie is created inside a computer, just like every modern animated movie.
There are a lot of questions about The Lion King remake, not the least of which is just how closely the film will adhere to the original story. However, one thing that is clear is that what the film is not is live-action. We need to just start calling it The Lion King remake because that's all it is. It's based off a movie that was made once before, just like so many of the film remakes that we've seen, especially in recent years. The method of bringing the story to life might not be technically identical to the first time, but unless the movie filmed actual lions the entire time, it's not a live-action movie.
You can see the new Lion King for yourself when it comes out on July 19, 2019.