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What a live-action 'Lion King' might really mean

Posted October 10

 (Deseret Photo)

Proving one more time that nothing is off limits when it comes to the vault of classic titles the studio has at its fingertips, Disney announced last week via a news release that it will be re-teaming with its “The Jungle Book” director Jon Favreau to fast-track production on a brand new “reimagining” of 1994’s “The Lion King” in the vein of recent hits such as “Maleficent,” “Cinderella” and, of course “The Jungle Book” (but hopefully, not “Alice Through the Looking Glass").

Predictably, the reaction online to the thought of a live-action “Lion King” has been extremely vocal, with the phrase “hakuna matata” being used to both defend and criticize the company. (“Hakuna matata, guys! As long as it’s good” vs. “Disney is all ‘hakuna matata’ about destroying its fans’ cherished childhood memories — as long as it makes money!”)

But in all of the discussion about a live-action “Lion King,” one fundamental question hasn’t really been answered at all yet: How can there even be a “live-action” “Lion King”?

Here are a few possible answers:

1. It could use real animals.

“Old-school” and “vintage” are all the rage these days, as are practical effects. (Nothing wins brownie points with fans like saying that a movie will mix CGI and non-CGI effects work.) And what could possibly be more old-school than using real, live animals? That’s how Hollywood did it for a hundred years or more before CGI got good enough — or, at least, filmmakers thought it was good enough — for them to begin making frequent trips to Uncanny Valley.

However, if studios are even opting nowadays to replace real babies with CGI ones because the former can oftentimes be unpredictable, that will undoubtedly hold even more true when sharp teeth and a bite force of close to 700 pounds per square inch enter the equation.

Likelihood: Low

2. It could use real locations.

This one seems more plausible — and more cost-effective, too. Why devote dozens of hours to animating a photorealistic blade of grass when Favreau and company could just take a camera and shoot a real blade of grass? Flying the whole film crew out to the African savannah for a few months would certainly be cheaper than trying to recreate the same thing inside a computer, even with today’s technologies. After that, just add some CGI animals and voila.

And yet, even with a live-action human child as the star, that’s not how “The Jungle Book” was made. Despite how realistic it all looks, when asked on Twitter how many of the locations were real vs. CGI, Favreau responded, “None are real. All are CGI. The whole movie was shot in downtown L.A.”

That’s a lot of blades of grass. Given that the Disney press release specifically says that the new “Lion King” will follow the groundbreaking technology found in “The Jungle Book,” it seems unlikely that they would backtrack and use less CGI.

Likelihood: Low

3. It could be a much more liberal “reimagining” than anyone is expecting.

As a “reimagining” of “The Lion King,” per the press release’s vague description, Disney and Favreau could have a range of things in mind. One possibility is that there will be humans in the movie in a limited capacity (played by real actors, not CGI-ed a la “The Polar Express”). That could be something as straightforward as a brief encounter between Simba and a human village. Another possibility is that this movie could take things in a more abstract, less literal direction — maybe swap out Simba’s pride (as in, a group of lions) for a tribe of African natives.

Of course, the trend with all these Disney reimaginings seems to be to hew even closer to the original. After the narrative departures of “Maleficent,” “Cinderella” was basically a straight-up remake minus the music. As the press release also states, “Like (the upcoming) ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘The Lion King’ will include songs from the animated film.” In other words, don’t get too worried at the thought of a lion-less “Lion King.”

Likelihood: Low

4. It won’t be “live-action” at all.

Despite all the reporting and discussion going on about a “live-action” “Lion King,” one thing the news release does not say at any point is that the movie will in fact be “live-action.” It’s not entirely clear when and how that phrase snuck into things, but The Hollywood Reporter probably hit the nail on the head when it said as part of its own announcement of a “live-action ‘Lion King’” that, “The new take won’t be live-action, per se, but will definitely look it.” In other words, “live-action”-ish, but not really, truly a live-action movie.

To look at that another way, this is Disney taking its remake strategy one step farther: Instead of translating animated films into live-action, bringing them to life with some help from modern CGI technology, this will instead be just a remake — animated film to animated film.

Likelihood: High

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.

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