Not perfect, but Disney’s naturalistic “The Lion King” is a winner, and dazzles in 4K
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Best friends Nala (Beyoncé) and Simba (Donald Glover) with caretaker Zazu (John Oliver), the red-billed hornbill.
“THE LION KING”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2019, PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements; Streaming via Amazon Video/Prime (4K), Apple (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: The Journey to the Lion King (Blu-ray & Digital platforms)
EVERYONE REMEMBERS the original “The Lion King” (1994), with its superbly drawn animation, and fabulous music, such as Elton John and Tim Rice’s “The Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata,” and the Oscar-winning “Can you Feel the Love Tonight.” Hans Zimmer’s majestic score won him his first, and only, Academy Award to date. “The Lion King” immediately became one of Disney’s beloved treasures, which spawned a stage adaption in 1997, and has become the third longest-running show in Broadway history. It also holds the record as the best-selling movie ever released on video in the U.S., with 47 million-plus copies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray.
The African savanna is the backdrop for the film’s iconic opening, as an orange fireball pops over the horizon, while South African musician Lebo M., who reprises the role for the new edition, cries a Zulu-tongued proclamation to a new day. The film tells the tale of Simba, a lion cub and the son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi, who someday will be king of Pride Rock. “No one anticipated that the animated film would have songs,” says executive producer Thomas Schumacher during the three-part 54-minute documentary. “In fact, there was enormous resistance. It took almost a year to fully embrace the idea.”
"The Lion King" (1994) Opening sequence
"The Lion King" (2019) Opening sequence.
Every shot in the movie except for one of these four was created in the virtual reality world of director Jon Favreau and his computer wizards.
At the beginning of the documentary, Hans Zimmer stands in front of his 102-piece orchestra last April, during the first recording session for the upgraded version of his 25-year-old score. He asks the musicians, “How many of you have seen the original “Lion King”? As the camera pans across the huge studio, nearly every hand is raised. “Good. This is a good thing,” says Zimmer. “I thought we could improve on it this time. Just a little bit.”
After the success of the reimagined and heartfelt visual wonder of “Jungle Book” (2016), Disney tapped director Jon Favreau for a possible photo-realistic reinterpretation of “The Lion King.” “Now we have available to us a technology that can actually present these characters as if they were real living animals,” says Favreau. “And, for me, that’s a challenge.”
Favreau and his team had pushed the technological envelope with “The Jungle Book.” But, for “The Lion King, “they’ve been able to find some ways to make it even better…especially since we don’t have a human character,” says executive producer Tom Peitzma. The director developed what he called the “Black Box Theater,” a big black room with six reference cameras, so the actors could move and perform and interact with each other, much like on a real stage. “I think that spark helps make it feel real,” says Favreau. Traditionally, actors stand in front of a microphone and recite the lines for animated films. “Here, this gives you the freedom to really get it in your body,” says actor Eric André who plays Azizi, one of the three main hyenas.
For the revolutionized C.G.I. remake, the artists first started with script pages and basic drawings, then moved on to keyframe storyboards created from digital interactive tablets and stylus pens. Once completed, the frames were imported into the digital workflow to create mini-animatic scenes. Music and dialogue were added, which gave Favreau and the artists a basic sense of whether the sequence worked or not. Once approved, the photo-realistic characters were uploaded into the massive 100-mile radius digital world of grass, trees, and rocks created and inspired by hundreds of thousands of still photographs and videos captured by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and his team of photographers, during a pre-production East African safari.
(1) Rafiki (John Kani) the mandrill, and the kingdom's shaman and advisor to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). (2) Simba the cub (JD McCray). (3) "Look Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom." (4) Young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Simba go on their first outing to the watering hole. (5) Simba takes Nala to the elephant graveyard.
“It’s been our goal from the beginning that you could fly freely around the savanna, from Pride Rock, to Rafiki’s tree, to the watering hole, to the elephant graveyard, all the way to the cloud forest in the continuum, and we have achieved that,” says production designer James Chinlund. Overall 100 different species of plants were created, plus every rock, tree, and creature. “It’s mind-boggling how much detail is needed to create a world that feels real,” he adds.
Finally, they applied virtual reality technology within their African landscape, much like a video game, in order to create “The Lion King.” Instead of cars and guns and points being scored, their VR world is filled with cameras, lights, and digital animals, says producer Jeffery Silver. VR sensors tell the computer where each camera is positioned and what lens is being used, attached to either a tripod, a Steadicam, dolly, crane or drone. The camera operators use the equipment just like on a live-action film, but with only a VR sensor attached, instead of a 50-pound camera. The operator, Favreau, and Deschanel all wear VR headsets over their eyes as they position each shot for their “Lion King” world.
The final results on the screen are breathtaking. You’ll swear it’s all REAL! The remake hews closely to the original script, while the opening sequence is nearly a shot-by-shot clone of the 1994 version. Favreau admits one shot lasting 20 seconds during the opening is actually real footage taken in Africa. Can you guess which one? Everything else was computer-generated.
Favreau and his technical team should be applauded, and will most likely win an Academy Award for their achievement, but the photo-realistic characters, the facial expressions of Simba, and the gags all fall flat. To keep the animals realistic, their eyes are sized normally, compared to the Disney tradition. For more than 80 years, animators have given animals oversized eyes, which provided added emotion and expression. In addition, the mouth movements of the animals in Favreau’s version are minimal, limiting their expressions, and making it extremely difficult to follow their dialogue and lyrics.
(1) Spotted hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key and Azizi (Eric André) confront Simba and Nala. (2) Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces the hyenas to help him with overthrowing Mufasa as king of the Pride Lands. (3) Mufasa falls to his death, which leaves Scar to become King. (4) After his father's death, Simba embarks on a new life with Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) and Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner).
88-year-old James Earl Jones, as the voice of Mufasa, is the only returning actor from the first “Lion King.” The new batch of voice actors are much more diverse, with Beyoncé (Nala), Donald Glover (older Simba), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Alfre Woodard (Queen Sarabi) and JD McCray as young Simba. Favreau says McCray had been a YouTube sensation as a singer and a previous collaborator with hip hop artist Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover, who replaces Matthew Broderick as the older Simba.
“Hearing them both (JD & Donald) sing is wonderful. And, he brings not just humanity to the role, but he has so much personality in the way he sings it. It’s nice to have the opportunity to have actors who are both the performers and the singers.” – Jon Favreau, director
Young Nala is played by Shahadi Wright Joseph, who had the role in a recent stage production. She started watching “The Lion King” at age five. Musician/producer Pharrell Williams was recruited to be the singing producer for the project. Seth Rogen, the voice of Pumbaa the warthog, felt it was “crazy that Pharrell was helping him sing,” – since he’s not a trained singer. Pharrell was able to extract something special during his performance of “Hakuna Matata,” joined by Billy Eichner, who’s a much more polished singer, as the bantering Timon the meerkat. And Brit John Oliver voices Zazu, the uptight red-bill hornbill, but it’s not as witty as Rowan Atkinson’s original performance.
(1) Scar now rules the Pride Lands. (2 & 3) Fur from Simba ends up at Rafiki's tree. (4-6) “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” as Nala and Simba reunite.
The Lion King world was rendered and mastered in 2K (1.78:1 aspect ratio) and upconverted to 4K/HDR10 physical disc presentation and 4K/HDR10 and Dolby Vision for digital platforms. The 4K and HD versions are both spectacular visual wonders, but the 4K has a slight edge in overall sharpness, with the wide shots and super close-ups of fur and rock textures. The big difference is from the strikingly expansive color palette of browns, greens, blues, and reds and HDR toning with the super intense highlights of the African sun and deep, dark blacks – especially during the nighttime battle sequence at Pride Rock, between Scar and his troop of hyenas, and Simba, Nala and the rest of the lions.
The 4K (disc and digital) features the engaging and more lively Dolby Atmos eight-channel soundtrack, pushing the music and effects to your height speakers. The bass response is robust and strong, as elephants walk toward you during the “Circle of Life” sequence. And, at last, you won’t need to increase the volume by five decibels, as was necessary with a number of Disney 4K discs. This time they’ve got the level just right. The soundstage is nicely produced from front, to side, and to the height speakers for the complete soundstage.
Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed “The Lion King,” even with its expressionless shortcomings. Critically, last summer it got mixed reviews, but the audiences didn’t mind. It topped $1.6 billion globally, finishing behind “Avengers: Endgame” as the No. 2 box office movie for 2019.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1-4) The battle for Pride Rock between Simba, Scar and the hyenas.
(1) Nala and Simba celebrate the birth of their first cub. (2 & 3) Rafiki presents the newborn to the assembled animals at Pride Rock, which continues the circle of life.