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This summer will bring the release of The Lion King, the latest in a long line of remakes of Disney animated classics that bring prestigious talent to updated takes on some of the House of Mouse's most beloved films. In almost every case so far we can simply dub these remakes "the live-action version" because they quite simply offer live actors in place of Disney animated characters, with CGI creations standing in for various talking animals and objects.
For a long time now calling The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book) the live-action version of the beloved 1994 animated film has served as a kind of shorthand for fans, since the intent of the film seems to be a realistic recreation of the animated world set forth by the first movie. Much as he did with The Jungle Book, Favreau is directing photorealistic, digitally created animal characters voiced by actors, but unlike The Jungle Book, there are no humans present onscreen. Every character exists in the digital realm, with the only human element being their voices. With that in mind, can we really call the new Lion King live-action? Wouldn't it be more accurate to call it an animated movie?
Speaking to Slashfilm from the set of his new Disney epic, Favreau said he actually believes his film should fall somewhere in between.
“Well, it’s difficult because it’s neither, really. 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," Favreau said. "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. Because hopefully, you could just watch it without it being introduced. If we put up that Rafiki footage and didn’t say what it was, some people might know, some people might not know how it was done, but 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."
Technically speaking, if the visuals of your film are entirely created by artists, and the only acting we experience is voice acting, then you made an animated movie. In the simplest terms, that's what The Lion King is, even if it does present a very different version of animation than the film it's inspired by. For Favreau, though, the distinction seems to be more about the kind of tone he wants to create for viewers, and not the technical specifics of the movie he made. If you're watching The Lion King and marveling at the realism of the characters and for the duration of the movie you don't particularly care if it's animated or live-action, that's more important to him.
“I remember when I saw Gravity, I didn’t know what I was gonna expect, I just heard it was cool. I didn’t know how they did half the tricks. And I was completely drawn in by it and it was the experience I remember going to the movies for when I was little. It just washes over you," he said. "I think calling it live-action is also not appropriate either, because it sounds like we’re trying to present something that isn’t accurate. And I don’t know what we’re gonna call it. I don’t know. But remember, things have to sort of fit into one clickable headline, so it’s hard to have the nuance.”
Whatever we ended up calling the filmmaking techniques that went into The Lion King, there's a bigger question we still have to answer about the film that will ultimately outweigh whether it's live-action or animated or some hybrid of the two: Is it good?
We'll find out when The Lion King hits theaters July 19.