When Disney released their mixed live-action/photorealistic CG version of The Jungle Book back in 2016, I was blown away by how good the visual effects (by my former employers, MPC and New Zealand’s Weta Digital) were. It was a perfect blend. It cut back on some of the songs, but when there were (The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You, it was done in such a way that it never ventured into uncanny valley.
With the Lion King, there is precisely one live element – and that’s right at the start of the film, a landscape with the rising sun. From that point, the entire environment, lighting, cinematography, creatures, etc. are entirely computer-generated (albeit using a substantial number of MPC employees – we’ve not got to the point where computers are able to visualise and generate their own images – yet).
And it is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen – at least after The Jungle Book. I still marvel how well all the elements – from the ground, stones, rocks, grass are rendered. You can barely tell the difference between it and live-action. And the animals are extraordinarily well modelled and animated. All in all, it’s like watching a David Attenborough documentary – except here the animals talk.
And here lies the problem. As for the talking creatures, they work pretty well. It’s when it comes to singing some of the signature tunes that things get a little weird. Unlike The Jungle Book, the characters don’t fit the songs being sung. The voice work is extraordinary. If you’re listening to the OST without the images, it works really well. But when combined the images, the jaunty character work feels as if I’m watching an over-extended version of a Comparethemeerkat.com TV advert. Even Timon and Pumba don’t entirely work as singing creatures – and they’re the comic relief.
There is, however, one moment which DOES work. “Can you feel the love tonight?” starts off with Timon talk-singing, with Simba and Nala singing/communicating with internal thoughts. It’s genuinely a beautiful moment that works far better than any of the other songs in the film.
There are some very powerful moments in the film that the photorealism double downs on the emotional level. One moment is, of course, when Simba finds his dad lying on the ground, dead. It as sad in the 2D animated version – but rendered using 3D modelling and photoreal texturing.. it’s heartbreaking. Another is the moment in which Rafiki catches up with Simba and leads him to the watering hole where Simba has a spiritual encounter with his father.
Overall, The Lion King is a beautiful, beautiful film. I’m immensely proud of my former employers and colleagues that worked on it. I have no doubt in my mind that it’ll pick up Best Visual Effects (and maybe Best Animated Film) during the 2020 Oscars.
I think I still prefer The Jungle Book over The Lion King. The problem that I have is how well photorealism plays in future animated Disney movies. I think it can only go so far. It has limitations. That we can produce animated films to this level of photorealism is impressive enough. But I think this kind of technique is best used in conjunction with live-action such as The Jungle Book, Avatar and their forthcoming sequels (something I am absolutely looking forward to).