Some ‘Lion King’ Fans Think Disney’s CGI Looked Too Realistic

The Lion King remake sought to make the African savanna and its animals look realistic, and few, if any argue that it did just that. However, some say director Jon Favreau and his team may have done their jobs too well.

Although the movie has been called a “live-action” remake, it’s not in the same sense that the recent versions of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Cinderella and several others are. Not a single moment of the new Lion King contains any live footage at all. This is just as much a CGI-animated movie as Toy Story 4

Everything we see, from the animals to the water to the fire and the cliffs, was created with computers. And in some scenes, if we didn’t know better, we might swear the filmmakers took their cameras to Africa.

But to many eyes, that’s not necessarily a good way to tell a story where the characters talk and sing.  

Jon Favreau
Jon Favreau | WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto

Critics are mixed on the remake

Critics gave the movie a middling score of 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. While many admire the film’s technical achievement, they say it doesn’t have as much emotion as the 1994 hand-drawn original. 

More than one critic has noted that the filmmakers were so dedicated to making the animals look real that they ended up sucking the life out of the story. The 1994 movie created emotions by giving them facial expressions, such as Simba crying. As majestic as real lions are, they have basically three expressions: Impassive, roaring and sleep.

William Bibbiani, writing for The Wrap, notes, “This new version of ‘The Lion King’ isn’t realism; it’s literalism. This is what it would actually look like if the events in a Disney animated movie happened in real life. Sometimes it’s fascinating, frequently it’s ludicrous, and sometimes — like when an incredibly realistic animal dies on-screen in front of you while its only child mourns him — it’s borderline grotesque.”

Critics such as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone noted that the new movie is virtually a shot-for-shot copy of the original, so it feels stilted. “What’s missing? Let’s start with intangibles such as heart, soul and the faintest hint of originality.”

Put the expressions back in ‘The Lion King’

This could have been awesome. But Disney wanted to be national geographic

Posted by Manuel Barajas on Monday, July 22, 2019

As every Disney movie does, the new movie inspires fan art, but not all of it is complimentary. Facebook user Manuel Barajas posted stills from the new movie side by side with the same images, but with facial expressions overlaid. 

Dawn Maidment commented, “Some of these are a bit extreme but this (is) exactly what I meant they showed such little emotion in the faces of lions they could have done so much more!”

Stella Garrett countered, “But like its live action. If you wanna see the original, watch the original?? The graphics were soo good and realistic.”

Barajas himself said, “This could have been awesome. But Disney wanted to be national geographic.” Ironically, Disney now owns National Geographic as part of the Fox deal. 

What about ‘The Jungle Book’?

Disney remade The Lion King after Favreau scored a great success with his remake of the 1967 version of The Jungle Book, the last film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself. Audiences and critics were wowed by that 2016 production, which was mostly CGI as well. The movie was shot on a stage in downtown Los Angeles. 

There are two key differences, however. First, the Jungle Book remake did have a human character in Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi. Second, to make the CGI animals expressive, The Jungle Book remake used motion capture – the same technology that helped the recent Planet of the Apes movies work so well. The Lion King remake did not use motion capture.

It’s too soon to tell how history will judge the 2019 version of The Lion King. However, it’s a good bet it won’t be remembered as fondly as the 1994 version.