The Lion King is one of those formative films that nearly everyone has seen and has in some way, shape or form touched the lives of those who grew up watching Disney films. There are scenes, sequences, and songs that stick with you and while an earworm can be awful, if it’s a Lion King song, it’s totally fine. The iconic and nostalgic nature of the film is a big reason why I was shocked when I learned Jon Favreau would be directing a live-action version of the cartoon. How do you top something that so many people cherish? His live-action take on Jungle Book certainly proved you can turn a classic cartoon into a reimagined CGI film, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The Lion King was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD which means many more folks will experience the film and we’ll all gain a new perspective on the production thanks to the extra features. For the most part, these features do give perspective on the production and offer an explanation for why it had to be made.
The review here at AiPT! pretty much nails the overall experience with the film. It’s satisfying, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. My take is that the production values are incredible, the music and songs catchy, and the real scene stealers — much like in the original — were Timon and Pumbaa, played here by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner. There isn’t much on the screen that proved this film needed to be made, and it’s even weird to call this live-action. It’s still satisfying in its own right, although there is one big failure and that’s the emotive nature of the animals. There is only so much acting a glassy-eyed lion that lacks common facial expressions can do for the camera. There are many scenes where the jaw flaps to the voice but there isn’t all that much there. Despite being a comparatively crude cartoon, the emotive nature of the characters in the original 1994 version was clearly stronger, especially when the animals sing. The act of singing is obviously not something animals do, and thus seeing these hyper-realistic versions of the characters belting out “Hakuna Matata” rings false. I’d wager Disney won’t try to do a musical with lifelike animals again, or if they do they’ll learn from this film.
And learn they have, based on the excellent behind-the-scenes featurettes included on this disc. This is by far the most interesting aspect of the Blu-ray release as it does a good job showing how the production used virtual reality, new techniques to capture acting performances, and the desire to create somewhat imperfect camera movements to “film” fully rendered virtual worlds. At one point, one of the video production designers points out they “built a video game to make a movie” and it’s evident a lot of effort went in to make this happen. I may not necessarily buy the fact using VR headsets on a sound stage is as productive as the featurette wants us to believe, but it’s interesting to hear Favreau explain why the process was created at all. Simply put, virtual worlds are too perfect, and viewers see through the false nature of them quickly. By applying cameramen and actually having the actors say their lines in a space prior to recording, the filmmakers were able to add an element of humanity and imperfection that helps make the movie feel more real. The three main featurettes were:
- The Music: Go inside the studio with the cast and crew as they work to honor and elevate The Lion King’s beloved music.
- The Magic: Discover how the filmmakers blended the traditional filmmaking techniques with virtual reality technology to create amazing movie magic.
- The Timeless Tale: Filmmakers and cast reflect on the story that has moved generations and share how this Lion King carries a proud legacy forward.
Each one offers one-on-one interviews with the actors, peering into the production, and tidbits about what went into making the production work. If you read in between the lines, it’s somewhat evident not everything went as smoothly as Disney might like us to believe, like James Earl Jones, who didn’t play much of a part in the featurette and seemed to have a weak voice. Elton John appears a few times and always seems a bit short, and if you pay close attention sentences seem to end on a cut as if they had to reword things he said. It’s evident here that he was unhappy with how the film turned out, as he recently admitted.
Outside of these extras much of the rest is okay material, but really only of interest to superfans. Likely a lot of the material can easily be found online, like the two music videos.
Overall, I liked this film but didn’t think it was a necessary upgrade. I will say that the extra features make it very clear much of this production was an experiment. As Jon Favreau put it in one of the featurettes:
You’re taking an incredibly antiseptic digital medium and telling one of the most emotional stories that we have in our tradition using these tools… And also it’s a high wire act so there’s a sense that we really have to give it our all because this is an experiment.
For that reason, this film certainly was a step forward in making digital worlds more organic and real. I’m just hoping next time they do something completely original. At least, for God’s sake, don’t make another warthog sing.