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Disney’s CGI remake of its 1994 film The Lion King has crossed $1.3 billion at the international box office, officially beating out Frozen’s $1.27 billion to become the top-grossing animated film of all time, per CinemaBlend. That is, it’s sort of the biggest animated film ever since Disney has been loath to call it an animated film at all. While it’s entirely computer-generated footage (save for one shot), Disney continues to refer to it as a live-action film.
That’s an odd stance for the studio to take, given how often it likes to crow about its record-breaking blockbusters. But Disney has been oddly insistent on avoiding the animated label for the Lion King remake, despite the fact that it’s essentially just as visually manufactured as the original 1994 film.
Director Jon Favreau hedged when asked point-blank whether he’d call his film live action, commenting to SlashFilm earlier this year, “It depends what standard you’re using. Because 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. Everything is coming through the hands of artists. But to say it’s animated, I think, is misleading as far as what the expectations might be.”
Why does everyone involved seem so insistent on avoiding the “animation” label? There are a few possible reasons. American animated films are still stigmatized as less serious cinema than live-action movies. (Just ask the Academy Awards.) The company may want to emphasize the perceived superiority of its new photorealistic CGI technology by avoiding even calling it “animated” at all. Disney may even want to boost the numbers for its live-action reboot brand on the accounting sheets.
It’s not like Disney has to worry about holding the top spot on the animation charts. Frozen, the previous record-holder, is a Disney film, as are most of the slots in the top 10 highest-earner list. Plus, all this may be a moot point, given that Frozen 2 is scheduled for a 2019 release, and it may take the top slot from both the original Frozen and the new Lion King. Like most of the discussion around the 2019 box office, that makes this debate less of a categorization issue and more of a reminder of Disney’s intimidating power at the box office. Live-action, animated, or something in between, the only thing that matters to Disney at the end of the day is profit, and the new Lion King certainly succeeded there.