Few corporations in the entertainment industry have the power, influence and visibility of The Walt Disney Company. For over 80 years, the castle that Walt built has become a behemoth of Hollywood that can instantly be identified by its markers of style, tone and ethics. Everyone knows a Disney movie when they see one, to the point where Walt himself has near unimpeachable authorship over his studio’s properties a full half-decade after his death. Now, on top of those classic fairy-tales they made their own, they’ve dominated the market thanks to their purchases of Star Wars and Marvel, thus ensuring decades of pop culture command and billions in profits.
Better than any studio today, Disney understand the potency of nostalgia and the sturdiness of their own branding. It’s how they took public domain fairy-tales by the Brothers Grimm and others and turned them into distinct products of universal appeal that could be subject to copyright. What other studio could be described as the very embodiment of your childhood? For any kid who grew up in the ’90s like I did, Disney were an indelible part of that, and boy do they know it. So how do you keep that nostalgia train moving forward when your biggest competition is yourself?
For Disney, that’s taken a very curious form. The live-action remakes of their biggest animated hits have proven to be box office gold, even as critics veer between warm and perplexed. While it could be argued that the trend started in 1996 with the Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil version of 101 Dalmatians, the modern proliferation of this kicked off in 2010, when Tim Burton was handed the reins to a new take on Alice in Wonderland. While the movie itself is pretty bland stuff, it was a phenomenal success and grossed over a billion dollars upon release (second only to Toy Story 3 in that year’s top films at the box office). Disney are no slouches when it comes to making money, but in the live-action realm their previous results have been mixed. In 2010 alone, both Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice under-performed. Outside of their robust Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, future offerings proved just as grim, from the fiasco that was The Lone Ranger to disappointing attempts at more serious fare like Million Dollar Arm.
After Frozen made all the money, a new strategy was formed: Stick to the classics. 2014 saw Sleeping Beauty receive a subversive retelling with Maleficent; 2015 brought great success with a live-action Cinderella; and 2016 had the one-two punch of critical excitement with The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon. This year, a little film called Beauty and the Beast has beaten every superhero to the punch of 2017’s box office, and the studio have announced live-action remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin, Mulan and The Little Mermaid.
And then there’s the matter of a film called The Lion King. Once upon a time, this was just the side-project Disney didn’t care much about since the studio expected Pocahontas to be the nation’s favourite. Now, it’s one of the most wildly successful franchises Disney has ever created, spawning sequels, TV spin-offs, video games, and one of the most profitable musicals ever made. Not bad for a cartoon version of Hamlet with lions. It seemed inevitable following the success of Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book that The Lion King would receive the same treatment. Now, we have the technology to make it a reality, and with the announced cast including Donald Glover, John Oliver, Keegan Michael-Key and The Literal Beyoncé, it’s hard not to be at the very least intrigued by the project.
There’s just one problem: People keep calling it a live-action movie, and it’s very clearly not going to be live-action. That would suggest a film version of the stage musical, or perhaps an experimental piece of cinema where the cast don leotards and prowl across the savanna while roaring Elton John songs. I’m not against such a venture, although I doubt Disney would be willing to throw upwards of $150m at it. What the reporting on this project has exposed is a gap in our cinematic vocabulary. If it’s not animation and it’s not live action, then what the hell is it?
As CGI becomes ever more sophisticated and near indistinguishable from reality, its place in cinema has been cemented as a necessary tool beyond notions of experimentation and fads. Films don’t announce themselves so much these days based on their dazzling effects because everyone does it. What was once revolutionary in Avatar is now ten a penny every summer, with varying results. This offers fascinating potential for the industry, who can now film the previously unfilmable and move beyond even the boundaries of our imagination. The process isn’t cheap, but it can be an effective means to skip past more troubling or dangerous areas of film-making, like risky on-location shooting or complex stunt work. Do it right and people won’t believe it’s all computer generated, as was the case with several members of my family after we saw The Jungle Book. The only live-action part of that film was Mowgli, which served to highlight how far the tech had come.
The Lion King won’t have that marker for comparison (unless they add a token human character, oh please dear lord don’t do that). It’ll be entirely CGI motion-capture. Favreau explained to Coming Soon that he planned to use VR tech for the project. Most of the production process has remained under tight wrap since the project’s announcement, although the opening sequence was screened at last Summer’s D23 expo to rapturous response, with its realism praised. VFX supervisor Rob Legato, who will be working on the film and who won an Oscar for The Jungle Book, says the process of making the film is very much in a live-action mould, but will the end result be something that can be classified as live-action? What stops it being animation?
According to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an animated film is defined in the following manner:
‘A motion picture in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of the two general fields of animation: narrative or abstract. Some of the techniques for animating films include but are not limited to hand-drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutout animation, pinscreen, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects created frame-by-frame and drawing on the film frame itself. Motion capture and real-time puppetry are not by themselves animation techniques … Animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.’
This definition is interesting in the obvious way it has been shifted to fit with the evolving tools of cinema. Furthermore, if a heavily computer generated film wishes to be considered as animation and not live action, the film-makers have to prove why it deserves such categorisation in the eyes of the Academy.
Calling The Lion King live-action creates a kind of buzz and encourages a view of it that fits better with Disney’s future objectives. It makes the project seem more necessary than a run of the mill animated remake of a classic, and it allows for a greater expansion of their brand. We all know it won’t actually be a live-action film and yet the term somehow feels more fitting than animation simply because there’s a blurring of lines and speedy evolution of the artform we haven’t fully categorised yet. Maybe we’ll get there by the time the film comes out. For now, let’s all just enjoy imagining the glory that will be Chiwetel Ejiofor singing ‘Be Prepared.’