With $7 million domestic over the weekend, Walt Disney’s The Lion King had topped $510 million in North American box office grosses. As of this weekend, with $510.6 million, it has passed Beauty and the Beast ($504 million) to become the biggest musical of all-time in unadjusted domestic earnings. It is also, so says Disney, the Mouse House’s biggest in-house live-action movie. That means that it is Disney’s biggest grosser that isn’t an animated film like Pixar’s Incredibles 2 ($609 million), not a Star Wars movie like Rogue One ($532 million), The Last Jedi ($620 million) and The Force Awakens ($937 million) and not an MCU flick like Avengers ($623 million), Avengers: Infinity War ($679 million), Black Panther ($700 million) and Avengers: Endgame ($858 million). But, with the understanding that this is arguing over semantics, is it an “animated feature?”
In terms of how it was produced, the answer is obviously “no.” Director Jon Favreau had no sets, no live-action actors and no conventional props or related tools which filmmakers use in order to make a conventional movie. There’s exactly one shot in the film that’s 100% “real,” and that’s the very first image in the film. So, yes, the film is 99.99% animated in the sense that computer animation (and an unholy amount of talent, time and hard work) went into crafting this remake of the 1994 2D-animated melodrama. So, technically speaking, it’s a toon just as much as the first Lion King was, it’s just animated in a different way with different tools for the purposes of making it look different than its predecessor. But it’s that “motivation” thing that is tricky.
When you watch a classic toon, be it Sleeping Beauty, The Great Mouse Detective or The Emperor’s New Groove, there’s no attempts to create the illusion of reality. Ditto recent computer animated flicks, like Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 2 or Illumination’s Minions. As like-life as the lava may look in Aladdin’s cave of wonders, or as authentic as water in Disney’s Moana may look, the intent is not to convince audiences that they are watching something that is physically “real.” If anything, animation is at its “best” when its using the medium to break free from the laws of physics, as when Judge Frollo is terrorized by fiery incarnations of his own sins in Hunchback of Notre Dame or when Miles Morales takes that leap of faith in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
What Favreau and friends have done with The Lion King, for better or worse, is use the science, technology and movie magic that is modern animation to create the illusion of reality. It’s little different than the computer effects work made to make Black Panther’s Wakanda or Avatar’s Pandora come to life. Even if you know that the world of Aquaman’s Atlantis or the ghosts and goblins of Annabelle Comes Home aren’t real, the intended effect is to use fx and animation to create the illusion that what you’re seeing is flesh-and-blood reality. That’s the intent of The Lion King. Sure, suspension of disbelief is harder when the animals are singing or monologuing, but the intent is to use animation to create a version of The Lion King seemingly performed by actual “real” animals in the real jungle.
We have debated as to whether the experiment was successful and whether the final product works as a stand-alone motion picture. But considering The Lion King’s actual goals, to use animated and special effects to create the illusion of a nature documentary, it’s not that much of a stretch to consider it live-action. I’d also consider Revenge of the Sith or The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies to be a live-action film despite heavy computer effects and related “not real” animation used to bring the films to life. Again, the extent to which this “live action versus animation” debate matters is mostly immaterial at this juncture, both because consumers don’t care and because I don’t think a single person is going to stop watching the gorgeous 1994 toon just because this variation exists.
But the other big reason why, I’d argue, Walt Disney wants the 2019 version of The Lion King to be considered “live-action” is because it offers a kind of proof of life in terms of their live-action features. Yes, they’ve had ridiculous (and earned) success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars movies and their Disney and Pixar animated features. But in terms of “live-action” success not via explicitly acquired brands, they’ve had less luck. Outside of the ongoing Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (2006, 2007, 2011 and 2017), they haven’t had an “in-house” blockbuster outside of the fairy tale films since National Treasure: Book of Secrets in 2004. That may be petty in terms of how much they’ve earned (over $8 billion, counting the Fox films and the overseas numbers for Glass), but it’s not nothing.
Disney ruled the box office in 2018, with a $7.036 billion worldwide. But 74.7% of that came from four superhero movies, namely Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion), Black Panther ($1.346 billion), Ant-Man and the Wasp ($622 million) and Pixar’s Incredibles 2 ($1.242 billion). This year obviously isn’t the same situation, namely because Aladdin overperformed ($1.036 billion) while both it and The Lion King are the biggest possible live-action fairy tale/remake flicks we’re going to see out of this specific sub-genre. Meanwhile, original biggies like Tomorrowland, new-to-cinema fantasies like A Wrinkle in Time, old-school studio programmers like The Finest Hours and unrequested remakes like Dumbo have failed over the last few years. Fair or not, the perception is that Disney’s live-action department is not nearly as strong as their animated fare, the Star Wars movies and (especially) the MCU.
The Lion King has earned $997.9 billion overseas and $1.509 billion worldwide on a $165 million budget. It is Disney’s biggest grosser after Avengers: Endgame ($2.796 billion), Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.068 billion), Avengers: Infinity War ($2.048 billion) and The Avengers ($1.519 billion, which it will pass in a day or three). Even Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (theoretically) under-performing won’t damage the notion that all avenues of Disney’s motion picture department are firing on all cylinders. If The Lion King is a toon, then it’s another win where Disney already leads the field. If it’s a live-action fantasy, then it looks better on the spreadsheet. The Lion King is live action, because that designation is more useful to the Mouse House. If we’re judging the intent versus the execution, then it might just be true.