Director Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic vision of Disney’s animated classic The Lion King roars its way onto 4K UHD Blu-ray with an impressive video presentation, but a sadly lacking Dolby Atmos track. Oh, and the movie’s not that great, either.
The Production: 3/5
Twenty five years ago, Disney’s 32nd animated feature The Lion King shattered box office records, becoming the highest grossing film of that year and the highest grossing animated film of all-time (and still holds that record to this day, beating out Frozen by nearly $360,000, not adjusting for inflation). The film was not only a technical marvel in hand-drawn animation, it was a story that spanned generations borrowing themes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, along with catchy pop tunes by Tim Rice and Elton John.
With the studio’s current trend of remaking many of its animated classics into live action features, such as Cinderella, Dumbo, and Aladdin, it was no surprise that the studio would tackle The Lion King so early. Disney enlisted Jon Favreau to direct, having made a very successful live-action retelling of The Jungle Book for the studio three years earlier. Although that film followed the basic storyline of the 1967 animated classic and re-used many of the songs by the Sherman Brothers, it was still a fairly original retelling and expansion of that story, and had a humanistic element with actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Unfortunately, Favreau has apparently used the 1994 animated original of The Lion King as his animatic storyboard, and with very few exceptions, this version is almost a shot-for-shot photo-realistic remake of the original.
That being said, visually, The Lion King is by all accounts a technical marvel, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie didn’t walk away with an Oscar for Visual Effects at the very least. The computer generated animals are undoubtedly so realistic that many may think these are trained animal actors, except there is no evidence of fleas, ticks, flies, and especially for the male lions, genitalia. Favreau has loaded the movie with an impressive cast of voice talent (who actually performed their roles in many instances in a motion-capture environment), including Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, John Oliver as Zazu, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Penny Johnson Jerald as head hyena Sarafina, Keegan-Michael Key as Kamari, Seth Rogen as Pumba, Billy Eichner as Timon, and James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa. The cast does a splendid job voicing these characters, but no one really stands out, although there does seem to have been some room for improvisational dialogue here and there. Overall, though, the movie just feels flat and uninspired, and often the exceptional quality of the animation detracts from both the storyline and the vocal performances. All of the songs by Tim Rice and Elton John are included here, but performed with more pronounced diction than most are used to in a musical, which is often distracting as well. Even Hans Zimmer, who scored the original, repurposes that score, this time having the budget to record with a larger orchestra. This remake of The Lion King really has no reason to exist due to its lack of any originality.
3D Rating: NA
According to IMDB, The Lion King was photographed with Arri Alexa 65 and IMAX cameras in 6K resolution (I assume they are referring to the opening shot, the only “real shot” in the movie), with effects rendered in 2K and the movie completed as a 2K digital intermediate with Dolby Vision high dynamic range for its premium theatrical engagements. Disney’s 4K UHD Blu-ray contains an upscaled 2160p HEVC-encoded transfer with HDR10 high dynamic range, opening up the aspect ratio slightly from its theatrical 1.85:1 to its home video 1.78:1. This is quite possibly Disney’s best UHD video transfer so far on the format, with naturally shaded and vibrant colors, exceptional detail (nearly every grain of sand and rock crevice is viewable, each individual strand of hair in each animal’s fur), with deep blacks and bright whites that have no evidence of crushing, blooming, or banding. In fact, there are no noticeable compression or other artifacts whatsoever on this disc.
Unfortunately, The Lion King sets Disney’s track record on Atmos mixes back to that of Thor: Ragnarok. This is such a disappointing mix, mastered not only at a low volume but also a restricted dynamic range and anemic LFE. Cranking up the master volume on the receiver helps somewhat, but the stomping footsteps of elephants early on sound more like tip-toes. Surrounds and heights are used rather sparingly, too, in what often sounds like a front-heavy mix. Dialogue, though, is clear and understandable throughout.
Special Features: 3/5
As typical on a Disney UHD release, all of the special features can be found on the included Blu-ray edition of the film. Unfortunately, most of them never delve too deeply into the making of the film.
Director Jon Favreau Introduction (1080p; 1:14): The director very briefly lets the viewer know that nearly everything they are about to see was completed entirely inside a computer. This is accessible from the Play sub-menu.
Audio Commentary with Director Jon Favreau: Buried within the Play sub-menu, Favreau discusses much of the research, the technical challenge, and the vocal cast that went into the making of the movie.
Sing-Along With the Movie: Also buried in the Play sub-menu, a karaoke-style subtitle track for the movie.
The Journey to “The Lion King” (1080p; 53:25): A three-part look at the making of the film, including The Music, The Magic and The Timeless Tale.
More to be Scene (1080p; 10:31): A storyboard to final rendering progression for three sequences – Circle of Life, I Just Can’t Wait to be King and Hakuna Matata.
Music Videos (1080p; 8:36): Spirit performed by Beyoncé and Never Too Late by Elton John.
Song Selection (1080p): View individual songs from the film with karaoke-style on-screen lyrics – Circle of Life, I Just Can’t Wait to be King, Be Prepared, Hakuna Matata, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, Spirit and Never Too Late.
Protect the Pride (1080p; 3:02): A PSA on how to help preserve the lion population.
Digital Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem a digital copy (in UHD where available) from Movies Anywhere, and unlocks the following digital special features – The Lion King: Hear the Women Roar and Pride Lands Pedia.
The Lion King is a visual effects spectacle that, unfortunately, also lacks any originality, playing like a “live-action” (or photo-realistic) version of the animated classic.