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The Lion King, The Golden Globes And the Animated Film That Wasn't (But Totally Was)

In the summer of 2019 a new highest-grossing animated film was crowned at the global box office. But the studio that made it stayed strangely quiet on the subject. There were no self-congratulatory press releases, no gloating TV spots, and most of the entertainment press completely missed this particular achievement.  The studio has not entered it for best animated feature at the Oscars, and has not submitted it for the Annies. And they would have got away with it too- were it not for that meddling Hollywood Foreign Press Association. It's likely that Disney were as surprised as anybody when The Golden Globes nominated The Lion King (2019) for Best Animated Feature. Is this the first time that a studio has actually not wanted one of their films to win?

This has lead to the most bizarre situation we've seen in any recent awards season. Disney released a series of for your consideration ads that show off their Globe nominations. But any mention of animation is missing from the Lion King ad, instead choosing to highlight its Best Original Song nom. This has reflected Disney's entire strategy when it comes to the billion-dollar remake. But why would a studio (particularly a studio founded on animation) be so reluctant to accept such a plaudit?

Let's be clear: the new Lion King is one hundred percent an animated film. Well, to be accurate, 99.99%, as director Jon Favreau admits he snuck in one live-action shot for giggles. Back when Favreau was on the promotional circuit for his well-received "live-action" Jungle Book remake, he was extremely open about the fact that much of the film was animated. By the time the Lion King rolled around three years later, he said it was "not accurate" to describe the film as animated. The Jungle Book at least had one flesh and blood actor at its centre- Lion King doesn't even have that. So what changed? Did somebody have a whisper in his ear?

Disney's 'For Your Consideration' site. Notice what's missing?

Disney likes to always be in control of its own narrative at all times. To try and make sense of all this, we have to remember that although the Mouse House is one gigantic corporate entity, it's also several companies under a single umbrella. Companies like Marvel, Lucas Film, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, and now Fox, may ultimately answer to the same bosses, but they are also distinct companies with their own management and autonomy (to an extent). The Lion King is the first animated film to be made by Disney's Live Action Studio, as opposed to WDAS, Pixar or one of the other animation companies under the umbrella. Perhaps it's this that has put a (big) cat among the pigeons. Internally, WDAS or Pixar could see this as the LAS straying into their territory.

LAS has had a very successful strategy of turning Disney classics into live-action, with two billion-dollar hits this year alone. All these films have relied on VFX and animation to some extent, but none so much as Lion King. Still, perhaps they think audience confusion could be created if one of the movies was not sold as live-action at all. Not to mention that there's a considerable number of cinema-goers who would be put off of the idea of going to see a cartoon, but will happily pay for an effects heavy film.

From the moment the adaptation was announced, Disney has played most of the entertainment press like a fiddle. They carefully avoided actually calling the film live-action in so many words. They called it a 'reimagining' but said it was being produced by Disney Live Action. Then left the media to (wrongly) connect the dots, and simply declined to correct them when 90% of them referred to it as the "live-action Lion King".

But the film opened and despite extremely negative reviews, became the biggest animated film of all time and crossing the magic billion-dollar mark easily. Globally, it was second only to Avengers Endgame. It's now available to own on disc and digital.  So, what would be the harm in admitting it's animated now?

Perhaps the answer has nothing to do with the Lion King itself at all- but has more to do with what came next. In November, the next WDAS release came out, and it just happened to be the sequel to the previously top-grossing animated film. Frozen 2 arrived to massive hype just a few weeks ago and has already grossed over a billion and become the third biggest film of the year internationally and is on course to overtake the original. The only problem, it hasn't made quite as much as Simba. 

When it comes to Awards season, Frozen 2 will likely win the lion's share (see what I did there?) of the best animated feature categories, and it probably has the original song category sewn up too. The biggest threat it faces is from sister studio  Pixar's Toy Story 4. There's always also the chance that they will split the vote and cause an upset. And at the Globes, the Disney vote will be split three ways.

Disney is almost certainly hoping for a fairy-tale ending for Frozen 2, to be the top animated film of all time- the last place they expected to find competition was from themselves.

So maybe its internal politics, semantics or maybe that it doesn't fit their narratives. There are other theories too- some claim its financial motives to avoid paying their animators more.  And although we'll probably never find out the real truth for ourselves, it's unlikely anybody at Disney is losing too much sleep about it. After all, three billion-dollar grossing animated films in a single year, from the same studio is an unprecedented achievement.

For fans though, there's something satisfying about Disney going all out to try and pretend its not animated only to have it called out in such a public way. Hopefully next time, the marketing can be a bit more honest.

The 77th Golden Globes take place on January 6, 2020.