While it’s tempting to refer to Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King as the latest in the studio’s string of live-action remakes, following in the successful footsteps of Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), it would technically be inaccurate to refer to it as such.
Why? Because, well, it’s not live action at all. As director Jon Favreau revealed in an Instagram post, “There are 1,490 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.”
Yup. Following that opening shot, it’s fake. All of it. So, just because it looks like a live-action remake, The Lion King is actually more correctly described as a full computer-generated-imagery (CGI) remake.
Call it whatever you want, this film takes animation photo-realism to the next level with animals and landscapes so detailed and real-looking, the lines between “real” and “digital” are blurred into non-existence. In fact, if you were to just walk into the room with the volume turned down, you could be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary on the habits of a dysfunctional lion pride.
But the film’s strict adherence to ultra-realism is also a bit of its downfall, as it removes some of the heart and connection to the characters. In the original 1994 animated version, Disney’s animators humanized the characters by giving them human
emotions and expressions. In reality, though, lions—and most jungle animals—only have so many facial expressions, none of which are designed to express sadness or pleasure. So, without the musical and voice cues, you’d often be hard-pressed to know what the characters are feeling.
Fortunately, the voice casting is spot on, and definitely helps in connecting you with the animals and understanding the emotions they’re feeling.
While the remake runs 30 minutes longer than the animated version, it doesn’t feel like much has been added; rather, scenes just open and develop at a slower pace, giving you more time to absorb all of the glorious CGI realism.
It’s hard to imagine the story not being familiar to anyone at this point, but in a nutshell, the movie opens with king of the jungle, Mufasa (voiced once again by James Earl Jones, who returns 25 years after his original performance, and gives the alpha-lion patriarch the much-needed gravitas), introducing new cub Simba (Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino) to the jungle. Mufasa’s outcast brother, Scar
(Chiwetel Ejiofor), is jealous of this new heir to the throne, and he teams up with a pack of ravenous hyenas to overthrow Mufasa and banish Simba from the pride.
Young Simba stumbles across the comedic duo of a warthog, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and a meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner), who also take on the role of raising Simba in a secluded paradise-like section of the jungle. After growing up, Simba runs across Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter), who tells him how bad things have become under Scar’s rule, causing Simba to return to assert his rightful claim to the throne. Other notable roles include John Kani voicing shaman and adviser Rafiki, and John Oliver voicing hornbill and jungle gossip Zazu.
Part of what made the original so memorable was the score by Hans Zimmer and songs by Elton John and Time Rice, and those remain intact here, with some new songs added, and with the two pop stars, Glover and Beyonce, teaming up to perform “Can you feel the love tonight” and Rogen and Eichner putting their spin on “Hakuna Matata.”
As mentioned, the film’s CGI is beyond reproach. Only in a couple of instances (some water splashing and some of the jungle scenes) did the visuals look anything but lifelike. Colors have a golden, natural shade, with lots of sun and earth tones. There are many shots of wide African vistas, surprising me a bit that they opted to film this in a 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the more cinematic 2.4:1.
Closeup detail throughout is fantastic, especially of landscape and animals. In fact, closeups look so good, they only add to the illusion that you’re looking at real life. Individual whiskers and strands of fur are clearly visible, as are subtle eye expressions and mouth movements. You can clearly see the claws extend from the lions’ paws as they walk, the wrinkle and texture in elephants’ skin, and individual wisps of hair around Rafiki’s face. The detail and realism are nothing short of stunning, and represent a generational leap in CGI technology on par with Jurassic Park.
While shot in ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. While this doesn’t “doom” a movie to lower picture quality or mean it isn’t “true 4K” (see Dennis Burger’s post for a terrific explanation of why), I did feel that while
closeups had incredible detail and texture, backgrounds didn’t have that next level of detail found in some films. Backgrounds had a general softness and lack of detail that stood out, with forest leaves blending together and lacking sharpness, especially when contrasted with the terrific detail on tight shots.
With the sun appearing in many shots, HDR is used nicely to deliver a lifelike image. The sun is bright, with the landscape retaining shadow and detail. I also appreciated that the bright orange hues of the sun or the varied shades of blue in the sky had no hints of banding. Some lightning strikes and a roaring fire at the finale also benefit from the HDR grading.
Sonically, I wouldn’t call The Lion King‘s Dolby Atmos track aggressive by any means, but it did offer some nice moments, and served its source material well enough. Dialogue is always clear and understandable (though Simba/Glover does tend to mumble a bit), and music is mixed up into the ceiling speakers to give it some more dimension. The sound mixers took some opportunities to add echo to voices and sounds inside of caves and canyons, to have animals running past your head, or to have some atmospheric sounds in the jungle, but I would have liked them to push these a bit further.
They get a little playful with Zazu’s voice as he flies around spouting out bits of news, and there are some lightning and thunder effects that crack overhead. While there aren’t a lot of bass-heavy moments, the sound mixers choose the right moments—like the stampede and pivotal lion roars—to push the LFE channel and heighten the emotional impact.
While The Lion King offers nothing new from a storytelling perspective, it is gamechanging for its use of CGI, and is a terrific looking film. While there are a couple of scenes that might be intense for younger viewers (my 3½-year old left the room during a couple of scenes saying, “Scary!”), it is mostly family-friendly fare that is nearly as educational as a documentary and likely more entertaining.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.