The Academy might’ve made a U-turn after introducing the iconically awful “Best Popular Film” Oscar, but there is still an existing category that caters to the blockbuster-inclined crowd: Best Visual Effects. It’s a space in which a Star Wars film has been nominated five consecutive years, and only one winner in the last 20 has had a worldwide gross under $100 million (Ex Machina in 2015). And while the prestige of a Best Visual Effects Oscar doesn’t exactly compare to that of Best Picture, it can be an indicator of where the industry is headed—like when everybody tried to make 3-D movies happen after Avatar won the award in 2009 and became the highest-grossing movie of all time.
It’s also important to honor a film that might not be “Oscar worthy” in its entirety, but still has elements of Oscar-worthy craftsmanship; Interstellar isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to deny the power of its stellar visual effects. (To say nothing of many Marvel nominees in the past decade as well as—LOL—Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) I just want to get this out of the way, because endorsing a movie for a Best Visual Effects Oscar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie as much as it features an undeniably great technical achievement.
The Lion King remake is an abomination. It’s another cynical cash grab from Disney, which has eschewed creating more original animated films in favor of “live-action” remakes of classics from the company’s vault. But I would be lying if I said 2019’s Lion King didn’t have some of the most impressive visual effects of the year—even if they came at the expense of what made the original film so special.
There were about five minutes when I thought The Lion King remake was going to be a great, potentially groundbreaking film. (Please be nice, I’m disclosing this information voluntarily.) Those five minutes all came at the beginning of the movie, as director Jon Favreau re-creates the “Circle of Life” cold open with photorealistic animals and what looks like a real African savannah (it isn’t). The scene wouldn’t feel out of place on an episode of Planet Earth—a testament to the visual effects that made Pride Rock and its inhabitants look startlingly lifelike. It also helps that “The Circle of Life,” as a song, absolutely slaps.
But the good vibes soon make way for something even more upsetting than the Shadowlands: the uncanny valley. Watching these photorealistic CGI animals eat grass and humbly bow to baby Simba over swooning music is one thing; having them talk and try to perform songs is another. In the effort to make the animals as realistic as possible, the film loses sight of what really mattered to The Lion King. The story isn’t improved moving from ’90s animation to lifelike CGI: It’s handicapped.
When Mufasa dies in the original Lion King, you can appreciate the different expressions on each character’s face: Mufasa’s shock and horror at his brother’s betrayal; Scar’s fiendish satisfaction that he’ll finally be king; Simba’s anguish from an event that he believes is entirely his fault. It’s heartbreaking:
Now, look at this moment re-created for the 2019 film. Notice how the lions’ faces barely change, because they LOOK LIKE ACTUAL LIONS:
What the fuck is this?! Disney was so preoccupied with whether or not they could turn The Lion King into a nature documentary that they didn’t stop to think whether they should. The befuddling sight of inexpressive lions falls on the opposite end of what I’ll call the “Cats nightmare spectrum.” One of the (many) reasons Tom Hooper’s film was a hellscape was because the cats were too humanlike for their own good; conversely, without the anthropomorphic qualities of hand-drawn animals, The Lion King remake feels like a hollow facsimile. Instead of imaginative musical sequences, most of the time the animals just walk across landscapes and “sing” [insert catchy song you remember as a kid/Beyoncé’s Oscar bait]. And thanks to the remake’s commitment to photorealism, the voice actors have to do extra work to convey a range of emotions while their characters’ faces are reduced to the comparatively limited expressions of, for instance, those made by a real-life lion. (No shade, they’re lovely animals.)
It’s a bizarre approach, and it’s even weirder when Favreau struggles to classify, what, exactly, he and his team accomplished with the film. The director believes his Lion King is “neither” an animated or live-action film, explaining how the crew used virtual reality gear to immerse themselves in the digital world they created. (Every person “on set” had a digital avatar.) But using VR technology to create digital sets and incorporate CGI animals is, by Favreau’s own admission, more analogous to digital animation than a “live-action” production, which is what Disney repeatedly insists the movie is. (It’s easier to stretch that meaning with Favreau’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, because at least there’s one human character in the ensemble.) That’s why Disney didn’t submit The Lion King for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars—though, in an inspired move by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, that didn’t stop the film from receiving an Animated Feature nomination at the Golden Globes.
It’s Disney’s prerogative if they don’t want The Lion King to compete for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. But calling the remake a “live-action” movie isn’t merely disingenuous: It diminishes the amazing accomplishments of the visual effects team—led by Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Elliot Newman—whose work was so revolutionary the film’s own director doesn’t know how to describe it. That’s a pretty good hallmark for a technical achievement—even after reading several articles about the film’s production, I have a hard time wrapping my head around what the visual effects team did to turn Pride Rock and the animals into a world nearly as convincing as something narrated by David Attenborough.
It’s still no substitute for the ’90s movie—or a well-made nature documentary, for that matter—and the fact that Disney continues remaking its own IP while largely ignoring original stories and traditional animation is a depressing window into the company’s future. (Hope you’re ready for a “live-action” Bambi!) But that’s what happens when these remakes routinely flirt with or surpass $1 billion at the box office, and that shouldn’t be held against The Lion King for the Visual Effects Oscar. From a purely technical standpoint, the movie has some of the most impressive, immersive visuals since Avatar. And, sure, the finished product is an unnecessary, soulless, cynical piece of garbage—but that doesn’t mean we can’t admire the artistry therein. After all, Suicide Squad is an Oscar-winning movie.