Disney’s The Lion King remake has invited a lot of comparisons with another recent reimagining: The Jungle Book. Given that the films share a director in Jon Favreau and an affinity for photorealistic animals, it’s no wonder that fans and critics alike have been scrutinizing the similarities and differences.
They’re not alone, though, as the team behind The Lion King made a conscious effort not only to emulate the techniques of The Jungle Book but also to further and improve them. Animation supervisor Andy Jones had a lot to say about the process during a set visit to the latest Disney blockbuster.
First, much like the animated version of Jungle Book, Lion King initially took a lot of liberties with the animals in question. They were anthropomorphic, and thus expressed their emotions in recognizably human ways regardless of realism. So, once again, the animators were tasked with “trying to infer a lot of that emotion through what the animals can really do instead of try[ing] to force it.”
While allowing the characters to behave and react like their real-life counterparts is a fascinating thought, it’s also a big challenge to keep the audience as engaged as they were in the original film. The Jungle Book dealt with that issue by hiring the best actors they could for each character in order to achieve a performance that was visually subtle but emotionally rich. After all, no one could fail to understand the nuance of Shere Kahn with Idris Elba voicing him.
“It was a really good marriage of voice with character,” Jones said of Elba’s Disney villain turn. “He really got into the character and played it, I think, at just the right tone.” The Lion King had to follow suit not only with their own powerhouse voice actors, but with director Jon Favreau’s steady guidance of them. “Jon’s good at getting our voice actors for this movie to really bring in the right level of performance and not overdo it and not underplay it,” Jones added.
The black box was also an added benefit, allowing the animators to view the actors’ movements on stage as they moved through the script and then take from their performance for their animation. Though it wasn’t for every scene, the moments that The Lion King crew was able to bring some of the actors together while off-book and engaging in eye contact were the most useful. The actors’ performances could then drive the animals’ animations and give the characters extra life without breaking the no anthropomorphism rule.
An invaluable tool that was also put to use in The Jungle Book, the black box not only helped animators infuse the animals with their actors’ charms – it also kept their characters consistent. “It’s always better when you're doing something so subtle and so detailed with performance that you're getting really natural performance timings that are consistent,” the animation supervisor explained. Which is why it was so important that, despite various artists working on the same character or the same scene, they all had one specific and living blueprint to work off of.
Idris Elba may have come away as the most memorable performance of The Jungle Book, but it’s Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen who best embodied their characters of Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. According to Jones, part of that is due to Favreau and the duo’s joint love of comedy, but the black box sessions also played an important role. “They really started to improvise a lot and created some interesting takes that the writers didn't think about.”
As more Disney animated films use the technology that The Lion King has championed, we can hope that the methods that produced such fun versions of Timon and Pumbaa can be applied to the entire cast evenly. Even if the characters aren’t human, the actors embodying them have all the tools necessary for the accompanying technology to make them so.