In Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” you can almost suspend yourself to believe actual lions are on screen if you didn’t know any better. In a time where Disney remakes feel inevitable, a computer generated remake of a hand drawn classic is now looking to top the hungry summer box office. The visual effects in “The Lion King” are a grand technical achievement. The pride-lands breathe as do its wild animals. From towering giraffes in the morning sun to the firefly twinkle in a baboon’s eyes, Favreau’s film is a colossal technical stunner breaking new levels to what animation can offer and how stories can be imagined. This retelling of the beloved classic is met with remarkable artistry as the VFX work is pushed to new heights as well as into the Academy’s radar.
Leading up to the film, the word “live-action” was beginning to tick off. It’s easy to assume this adaptation from the original would be a remake, but the term “live-action” shoves it into the wrong medium. Calling this iteration of “The Lion King” a live-action film sounds like underselling the talent at work. What makes the film a treat for the eyes are the dedicated artists behind-the-scenes. It is not the work of positioning the camera on live animals, but the work of about 364 credited VFX developers and artists. The attention to detail and effort is instilled into the animals on screen, creating a depiction of the real habitat that is as close as technology has come to.
Favreau’s “The Lion King” is an ambitious take on one of Disney’s most cherished stories. The visuals range from groom artists to modelers, to texture artists, to digital compositors and more. In creating the vast pride-lands via a virtual reality model and then photographing every angle as every inch of land and hair is placed in, the value in design is not to be missed. With its indelible photorealistic animation, it’s foolish to assume it’s not an early frontrunner for visual effects at next year’s Academy Awards.
Favreau’s film roared into theaters opening weekend nabbing up an impressive $191.8 million at the North American box office and landing a hefty global seize of $543.6 million. Although praised for its visual showcase, the film has been leading the critics board with lukewarm to sour reviews as the general audience eat up Disney’s latest offering. It begs the question, has its technical mastery now rendered the story hollow?
What felt so genuine about Allers and Minkoff’s film was how the animation gave way for the audience to feel and sympathize with its anthropomorphic characters. The story of a cub who learns to grow into his destined bravery and return to reclaim and protect his kingdom is easily accessible thanks to the studio’s traditional hand drawn animation and storytelling. Now equipped with advanced technology, the story unfolds in what feels like realtime, seeing drawings become animated flesh and pouncing movement. Favreau and crew have put in the genuine effort to bring a new viewing experience to audiences. It sets the bar while also inspiring the notion that new original stories can take shape and run wild, too. The emotional narrative in “The Lion King” is debatable among critics but the visual craft is not, and that’s something the studio can definitely capitalize on.
Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Robert Legato heads the VFX department for Favreau’s film. The seasoned coordinator has won three Oscars under his name, for James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Favreau’s own “The Jungle Book” in 2017. Legato also shared a nomination with the VFX crew on Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” Now with “The Lion King,” Moving Picture Company will look to secure another Oscar win. Andy Jones, Animation Supervisor on the film, reflected on the research put in by the crew to mimic real animal movement, muscle and fur:
“We spent months observing animals in nature films and sketching at the zoo,” Jones says. “I was fortunate enough to go on a two-week safari in Kenya along with some of my fellow filmmakers. The animal interaction I witnessed was like nothing I had seen before. Observing these animals in their natural habitat was truly amazing.”
“Fur changes everything,” Jones explains. “You not only have to think about how the skin is moving, but how the fur moves with it. It’s a whole new level of complexity. There are even special ‘groom’ artists who create realistic details of all the animals’ fur. Is it soft and smooth or scraggly? What length is it on different parts of the body? Mufasa was one of our most interesting challenges. His long flowing mane was practically a character itself!”
In an interview with Variety, Favreau expanded on why it felt right to bring this story back to life in this age and with this technology. He took the opportunity to bring the naturalism of wildlife to try and engage with audiences in a new way. Considering many ticket sales will be to fans of the original, there’s also a door that opens to tell this story to another generation. To imagine the film through the eyes of a five-year-old, who is more than willing to believe it is real, the film transforms into a naturalistic, documentarian-like experience. Perhaps this is what Favreau was intending and to that respect, it succeeds.
Visually, the effects flourish in its digitally-rendered environments. There is the facet of fur simulation and choreographing the movement of it over skin, muscle and bone. Not only are the lions coming alive, but the setting of every scene extends itself to detail. The visual effects department does immense work with sun ray tracing and following the transition as it hugs everything the light touches. As stunning as WETA Digital carried Matt Reeves‘ Oscar nominated “War for the Planet of the Apes” (which MCP did additional VFX work on), MCP also does the duty of detailing animal fur strand by strand as well as the grasslands and trees. Wind blows and wisps over Mufasa’s mane and the land he stands on. Even recreating the iconic “remember who you are” scene was a quietly moving ode to its animated original.
Favreau’s crew from “The Jungle Book” joined him for this film. What diverges from the previous collaboration is the exclusion of any human figure and actual live-action fragments. Disney is the big machine now and “The Lion King” is charted to continue doing well at the box office. Considered an animation film, it fits the bill for Disney to push it come awards season. But Disney may want to pursue its stellar shot at a VFX win and instead campaign its other animated slots for “Toy Story 4” and “Frozen 2.” Although “The Lion King” will have to contend against upcoming films the likes of “Ad Astra,” “The Irishman” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” it is still an undeniable frontrunner for visual effects. The marvelous detail in every scene, inch by inch, is a revelation the Academy cannot overlook.