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To start, The Lion King is one of my favorite Disney animated films, though that’s like saying ice cream is a favorite food. The point is, it is one of those movies where so many good things came together at the right time, it simply defined an entire decade and remains a title twenty years old that is as nearly popular now as it was then. With a long-running award-winning Broadway show proving its lasting power, it’s probably not all that surprising that Disney wants to keep this financial juggernaut running as long as they can.
With the success of their recent The Jungle Book film, a live-action film that closely followed the animated version paving the way, it’s a solid bet that a number of older Disney titles are getting primed for CGI updates, and I guess The Lion King is as good a place as any to start. Jungle Book director Jon Favreau is tapped to helm the film (as well as The Jungle Book 2), and that’s a good sign, as Favreau has proven himself a good fit for the difficult mix of visual effects and story-telling, something that has become a tightrope for many directors.
The term “live-action” though has a strange connotation to it of course, since every animal in The Jungle Book was computer-generated leaving the star, a real boy (actor Neel Sethi) to do all his bits in front of green screens, a practice that is nothing new in modern film-making. Live-action has become synonymous with live actors and computer animation, but is most commonly associated with motion-capture where actor performances are filmed and then animated, such as in titles like Avatar and the latest Planet of the Apes franchise (not to mention Gollum). Since there are no humans in The Lion King, the “live” part of live-action seems a bit of a stretch since the entirety of the film will most likely be CGI, but it’s too early to tell how the term will play out right now.
Either way, the idea of a new Lion King is double-edged. First, there is a kind of sadness to the news, despite the initial excitement. The groundbreaking work on the original is still a fascinating film to watch whether you’re a fan of the story or not. That magnificent opening sequence gathering all the animals around pride rock, the wildebeest canyon stampede (itself computer-animated) and the memorable songs are just some of the reasons why it’s a great contribution to cinema. To think of tampering or remaking it seems troubling. Classics are such because they are timeless. Of course, a remake doesn’t mean the originals can’t be seen, it just feels unnecessary.
Still, the beauty of film is how it inspires transition, invoking change by pushing technology and generating new ideas. The Lion King is a highly accessible story that has touched millions and as a new generation becomes raised on computer animation, it feels almost respectful to begin with a film that many claim as their most cherished childhood film memory. I can’t deny the interest in seeing these characters given a realistic feel, and wondering if that could translate well, though I will admit, I’m skeptical. While I enjoyed The Jungle Book, it took some getting used to in seeing authentic looking animals moving their lips like humans. The wonderful thing about the animated version of The Lion King is the exaggerated behaviors and traits of the characters, something a creature that is rendered realistically loses immediately. To prove that point, think about the classic scene in The Lion King when Timon and Pumbaa distract the hyenas by doing a hula dance. Picture that now with realistic animals and you can see where there will be issues.
Still, Favreau was able to capture a lot of the nuance and wonder of the animated Jungle Book and bring those memorable moments to life in a convincing and entertaining way, despite some flaws. We’re still a few years from a live-action Lion King and the advancements in animation from now to then will surely be startling and perhaps it will make a new chapter in The Lion King legacy a good one. What do you think?