When it comes to Disney’s upcoming Lion King movie, most of us have lots of questions. Things like, is it a shot-for-shot remake? Is it live-action? Animation? Will the animals be talking and/or singing? And perhaps most importantly: Why attempt this in the first place?
Way back on December 7, 2017, io9 was among a group of journalists who headed to a nondescript warehouse in Playa Vista, CA to try and get some answers. That’s where director Jon Favreau had assembled a massive film crew to recreate the African plains for The Lion King remake. But there was no grass. No trees. No insects, and certainly no animals. All of those elements were being created by a computer, largely captured using virtual reality without any actors or even cameras. But that’s an article for another day.
While the film’s technical aspects are extremely complex, so are the answers to those seemingly simple questions. For example, we asked Favreau how he even describes this movie. “Well, it’s difficult because it’s neither [animation nor live-action], really,” he said.
“There are no real animals and there are no real cameras and…there’s not even any performance that’s being captured.” So it’s definitely live-action then, right? Not exactly. “But to say it’s animated, I think, is misleading as far as what the expectations might be,” he explained. “And it also changes the way you sit and watch it.”
Favreau’s actual answer to everything about The Lion King is that it’s a film that doesn’t fit into any box. And that, he thinks, is the first of many surprises he has for audiences who’ll head to the theatre this July and think they already know what they’re getting.
“[Not knowing how we did this or what to expect] causes you to be present and mindful and pay attention because you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at,” he said. “And that’s a great disposition to be in as an audience member”
Disposition is something Favreau and his team have to be very mindful of. After all, they’re remaking one of the most popular films of all time. The Lion King is a movie most of us have seen more times than we can count (much like the source of Disney’s most recent live-action release, Aladdin). We know every lyric to every song, and every nuance of every scene. Favreau knows everyone is coming in feeling one way or the other about The Lion King, and he just has to play into that memory.
“We’re staying very, very close to what you think it’s gonna be,” Favreau said. “I think part of it is just understanding the way memory works. What expectations are and then being able to do things like, ‘I think we can [improve] the humour here, I don’t think this joke holds up as well, I think we could change the characterization of this character to feel more consistent with the rest of the film, or more current [so it] doesn’t feel like it’s something from a different era.’”
“It depends how well you know it [too],” he continues. “How much did we change in ‘Circle of Life’? You know, some of you might say, ‘Oh that’s shot for shot,’ but if we really look, it’s not. But, what you remember is gonna be in the movie.”
Favreau dealt with a similar situation on his 2016 remake of The Jungle Book (which talked about with the director at length about at the time). He figured not everyone remembered the original movie exactly, just the major bits—and that blend of new and old paid off to the tune of $1,396 million globally. Jungle Book also used similar filmmaking techniques to The Lion King, but the technology itself has improved so immensely that even in a few short years, Favreau’s confidence in the look of the film has only grown.
“Between the quality of the rendering and the techniques we’re using, it starts to hopefully feel like you’re watching something that’s not a visual effects production but something where you’re just looking into a world that’s very realistic,” he said. “And, emotionally, feels as realistic as if you’re watching live creatures. And that’s kind of the trick here because I don’t think anybody wants to see another animated Lion King, because [the original] still holds up really, really well. But what gave me some encouragement was the work we were able to do on Jungle Book. I saw it as a great opportunity to springboard, refine the tools, and do [that] process for this.”
And if they do “this” right, Favreau is fairly certain he’ll have no problem winning the audience over.
“[The Lion King] is so ingrained in us and to have that already there…the emotional infrastructure, it makes us know…if we do our jobs well, people are gonna connect with this. And I can’t express enough as a filmmaker, how grateful I am for that,” he said.
Still, within that infrastructure, Favreau and his team are doing some things differently. Take, for example, the cast, which is all new save for James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa. New voices include Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumba, and Billy Eichner as Timon, among others.
“They are just wonderful,” Favreau said. “People who can sing and perform and can remind you of an echo of the performances that you remember, but also bringing something new and fresh and feeling like it’s from 2019.”
In addition to the new cast, there will be some slight changes to the plot and characters—but only in places where Favreau and his team thought the story wasn’t exactly right for the time.
“The more we looked at it, the more we challenged the story, there were certain things that needed addressing to make it feel more appropriate to this medium,” Favreau said. “But as far as the characters, the story, the themes, the music, we really felt that people were very connected to the original. And so hopefully, if you are a fan of the original, you’ll look at this and say, ‘Oh, I feel like I saw The Lion King’…you still feel a connection to the animated film, but if you really look closely you’ll realise we’re actually taking a lot of liberties with it and we’re even changing things slightly with scenes and structure and the humour,” he continued.
Between the advances in technology, the classic story and characters, and some very slight updates, Favreau thinks he’s got a winning formula. It’s something that, he feels, audiences expect these days.
“That’s something else that wasn’t part of the equation when I started in movies,” Favreau said. “Now you’ve got to convince people that they shouldn’t sit home and watch the great television that’s on, or you know, the show they want to binge…It’s like having a restaurant. If you got good food at home, you better make it an event.”
The Lion King should certainly be that.
The film opens on July 17, we’ll have more from our set visit soon.