In The Lion King, both the original version and the inevitable remake that opens this week, the benevolent monarch Mufasa takes his young cub Simba to the top of a high rock to survey his future domain. Someday, Mufasa tells him, “everything the light touches” will be yours to rule.
The Walt Disney Co. currently controls 35 percent of the domestic movie market, which is more than twice what it could claim a decade ago and more than its next two competitors combined. Four of 2019’s five top-grossing movies thus far are Disney properties, and the fifth, Spider-Man: Far From Home, is part of the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The character is still owned by Sony.) With Frozen 2, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker still to come this fall—as well as The Lion King itself—it’s going to be hard for any other studio to even break into the Top 10 this year. Ruling everything you see isn’t just for animated lions anymore.
With Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of 20th Century Fox in March, the company’s empire is only growing. Six of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time are Disney properties, and after taking ownership of Fox’s assets, it can claim the film in the top spot: Avatar, which joins a portfolio that includes the Star Wars and Marvel universes as well as the family-animation juggernaut Pixar. In November, the company will launch Disney+, a streaming service that will eventually be home to Disney’s mountain of past content as well as a string of splashy, high-priced spinoffs like the Star Wars series The Mandalorian, whose reported $15 million an episode budget would rival Game of Thrones’ as the most expensive in the history of TV.
To an extent, Disney is simply playing by the current rules of the media-consolidation game. Even after the Fox merger, the company is still smaller, though not by much, than AT&T–Time Warner, and they’re both dwarfed by Amazon and Apple. But when it comes to creating and exploiting movie franchises, Disney is unrivaled, and the more of them the company acquires, the more the idea of challenging the company on its own turf starts to seem as wise as picking a fight with a full-grown lion. While Netflix loses money hand over fist, Disney’s movies turn a profit of close to 30 percent, in an industry where until recently 10 percent was considered a win. It’s done it by placing its faith in branding above all else, and in zeroing out its commitment to nonblockbuster filmmaking. In his book The Big Picture, Ben Fritz argues that Sony’s original Spider-Man franchise was doomed by the studio’s attachment to the people who made it: As the movies got more successful, the films’ director and star were able to insist on more money and greater creative control, and the end result was emo Spidey. But brands don’t talk back, and they don’t get big ideas. People may betray you, but brands are always faithful.
For a brand-oriented company like Disney, part of the appeal of costumed superheroes is that they can be easily replaced: If, as last year’s Into the Spider-Verse put it, “anyone can wear the mask,” then it doesn’t matter who’s inside the costume. (Only three years passed between The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with Andrew Garfield in the title role, and the Tom Holland–starring reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming, but audiences flocked to the new version with no signs of fatigue.) Unlike Mickey or Donald, though, Iron Man and Captain America have a habit of taking off their suits, which puts those peskily recognizable actors in a position to renegotiate, or simply leave the franchise altogether. But what if you didn’t need actors to be present—not just high-priced, finicky movie stars, but any of them? What if you could build an entire world from the ground up, one indistinguishable from the world we know but under your complete control?
That’s effectively what Disney has done with its new Lion King. Rather than create it like a conventional animated movie, where shots are precisely storyboarded in advance, director Jon Favreau “shot” the movie on a virtual set, using VR goggles to explore a computer-generated replica of the African savannah. Favreau and his Oscar-nominated cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, could, according to a breathless on-set report from Entertainment Weekly, “lay down camera positions and find their shots, just as they would on a physical set, only without having to relocate heavy camera units, chase the light of a dwindling sun, or coerce animal actors into doing their scenes once more with feeling.”
Favreau and his technicians are perfecting what Disney film chief Sean Bailey calls “a new form of filmmaking,” one that has profound and in some case ominous implications for the future. Disney and Favreau began developing it with their 2016 “live-action” remake of The Jungle Book, which placed a human Mowgli in a jungle filled with computer-generated creatures. But next to The Lion King, that 3-year-old movie looks practically prehistoric. When Mowgli dashes through the jungle, the background behind him looks almost comically flat, as if he’s running in front of an old-fashioned rear projection screen. There’s no such disjuncture in The Lion King, which could frequently pass as the nature documentary to which Favreau has likened it. The world is more convincing, more seamless, when there are no people in it.
The Jungle Book was billed as live-action, the better to place it in line with recent Disney remakes like Cinderella and Aladdin, and to differentiate it from the visual style of pre-digital animation. But the term live-action is nonsensical when applied to the new Lion King, for which not a single image ever passed through the lens of a camera. Favreau has taken to punting on the tricky matter of how to position it. “It’s difficult because it’s neither, really,” he told SlashFilm. “There’s no real animals and there’s no real cameras and there’s not even any performance that’s being captured that’s underlying data that’s real. … But to say it’s animated I think is misleading as far as what the expectations might be.”
By any precise definition, The Lion King is animation, but Favreau’s answers represent the language of market positioning, not aesthetic taxonomy. When he says that calling the movie animated sets up false expectations, what he means is that it sounds old-fashioned, the kind of thing your parents or grandparents would have loved. Disney’s company line is that hand-drawn animation is outmoded, as old-hat as sitcom laugh tracks and eight-track tapes. Never mind that there’s little compelling evidence that audiences raised on traditional cel animation have soured on it, or that the enduring popularity of both Disney’s back catalog and the modern-day classics of Studio Ghibli suggest that younger viewers have no trouble with the format. It makes no difference, because Disney doesn’t have to speculate what the future of movies will be: It can dictate it. It doesn’t matter that Moana, which used digital techniques to emulate the look of hand-drawn 2D, made more than $600 million worldwide. That backward-looking aesthetic isn’t good for the brand.
Critics have, by and large, been perplexed by the new movie, whose photorealism, astonishing though it may be, seems like an odd fit for a story in which animals talk and sing. Yet most recent estimates predict the movie will earn as much as $200 million in its first weekend of U.S. release (it’s already made more than $50 million in the critical Chinese market), and that foreordained success will give Disney license to push the technology even further. Huge chunks of the Marvel movies, particularly the action sequences, are effectively already animation—even Spider-Man’s costume and Iron Man’s suit are added digitally in postproduction—and that fraction is only going to grow. It’s a whole new world, and Disney holds the keys to the gate.
Part of the mission for Disney’s Epcot Center, opened in 1982, was to allow visitors to sample cultures from countries around the world. But a decade later, it turned its attentions to the “American home town” of Celebration, Florida, replacing Epcot’s focus on stimulating new ideas for city living with a synthetic suburban community that Disney built from the ground up. The company’s newest attractions, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Pandora—The World of Avatar, immerse us in worlds that don’t actually exist. (My wife had her first taste of couscous at Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion; at Galaxy’s Edge, you can wash down a Ronto Wrap with a glass of blue milk.) How long will it be before the technology that allowed The Lion King’s cast and crew to virtually enter its world becomes available in Disney’s parks, or even at home, allowing us to go on an African safari without ever leaving the couch?
The prospect of virtual tourism only becomes more attractive as the real world becomes less hospitable, as temperatures rise and class inequities grow. The Lion King isn’t just teaching us how to inhabit that world; it’s teaching us to prefer it. The Lion King’s virtual world has all the beauty of nature but none of the risks, none of the fragility—and none of the people. We can be alone, unencumbered, without worrying about the carbon footprint of our plane ticket or the systemic inequities of the local economy. It’s not just a world you can control. It’s a world you can own.