Towards the tail end (pun very much intended) of the Disney films section of the live action D23 Expo panel earlier today, a kind of hushed surprise filled the audience, followed immediately by nervous and excitable laughter, clapping and tears. What could possibly get an audience so worked up and emotional so quickly? Well, it was (whoa!) the first-ever footage from director Jon Favreau’s high tech remake of “The Lion King.” And let me tell you … it was amazing.
Jon (who was onstage after the footage ran) said that when he first stared talking to the studio about taking on the project his first question was, “When is D23?” It was the response that the audience gave his “Jungle Book” remake that really emboldened him and his creative team. So he wanted to make sure that the first audience to see footage from the new film. (They didn’t say anything about the cast, which includes Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and John Oliver, or anything in the way of production credits. For all we know Favreau is camped out with the screenplay for the original film and some guys in mo-cap suits in a studio somewhere and they’re just figuring it out.)
The sequence that they showcased expertly recreated the opening “Circle of Life” sequence. Now, the reason that this sequence is so important, besides setting the mood and the tone for the original film through then-breakthrough concepts like rack focusing in an animated film, is that when they were marketing “The Lion King” (the first animated Disney movie not based on preexisting source material) they screened that exact sequence. (It first appeared in front of Disney’s dreamy “Three Musketeers” in the fall of 1993.) So it makes sense that the first sequence screened from the new “Lion King” would be that very same sequence.
But nothing can really prepare you for seeing the sequence rendered in photo-realistic CGI. It is beyond stunning. Some of the backgrounds will make you squint. Is that an actual live action plate? Or just exquisite computer imagery? (It seems almost 100% certain it’s the latter. But you’ll still squint.) Rafiki looks like a baboon but his character is still there; the personality shines through. It reminds me of what Favreau was able to do with “The Jungle Book,” last year’s smash hit that is, upon reflection, sort of a perfect remake. He took what was so great about the original film, discarded bits that were offensive or dull, grafted his own sensibilities onto it, and paid homage not only to the first movie but to the history and traditions of Walt Disney Animation (and, indeed, with his nods to the theme parks, the company as a whole). You get the sensation, even from watching a few moments of this new film, that the same philosophy will continue.
Anyway, you see Rafiki crack the thing over young Simba’s head and smear the power or goo or whatever it is across the young prince’s forehead. When Simba sneezed, the entire audience of 7,000 devoted fans exploded into one giant “awwww.” Some things were kept hidden; Mufasa and Sarabi were purposefully obscured and one of the most iconic elements of the sequence, Zazu swooping down from the heavens to bow in front of his king and queen, was wholly absent. Not that it mattered much; my jaw was still on the floor.
What’s interesting to me is the studio’s insistence that this remake be lumped into the “live action film” category. This film is, unequivocally (and especially if I’m right about those backgrounds) 100% animated. It’s not even that the actors themselves are being hired to do performance capture, since these characters are largely quadrupeds and it’s hard to imagine Seth Rogen crawling around a dirty warehouse in a grey leotard. The animation looked like it was handled by MPC, the same visual effects company that did the bulk of “The Jungle Book.” Whoever was responsible for it, it’s animated and that is something that they should embrace. It’s actually more exciting for an animated film to be remade in a different form of animation with a whole different set of tools and methodologies at their disposal. (By the way, those out there saying that this will be a shot-for-shot remake, you saw a fraction of one sequence. There are many surprises ahead.) There’s no doubt that “The Lion King” will be a uniquely special work of art when it opens in theaters on July, 2019. Be there. Your King requests an audience.