The new “The Lion King” hews closely to the original, standing apart with its visual realism, using computer animation to approximate the look of a nature documentary. Yet amid a golden age of that genre, as the Disney blockbuster heads toward a big opening weekend, it also reminds us how talking and otherwise anthropomorphic animals tend to be more commercially popular than the real things.
As viewers of nature programming know, the actual jungle is fascinating but also tends to be ruthless, brutal and a lot less cute when it comes to battles for survival and dominance. Real lion kings hunt the youngest and weakest members of herds, occasionally kill cubs to ensure their own mating rights and aren’t as monogamous as Simba appears to be.
Like its predecessor, “The Lion King” conveys a message about the natural order as King Mufasa explains the “circle of life” and the thorny matter of lions eating their neighbors — garnishing that meal, as it were, with several spoonfuls of sugar. Director Jon Favreau has cited the documentaries of naturalist Sir David Attenborough as a source of inspiration.
Even so, the long history of what might be called Disney-fied nature programming — even that shot using actual footage — has regularly included ascribing human qualities to animals, built around the notion that they are a lot like us, only faster and furrier. That often involves giving names and personalities to lions, tigers and bears.
The popularity of nature programming has traditionally relied on crafting stories. As Slate noted in a 2015 article, titled “Why Wildlife Documentaries Insist on Making Animals Seem Human,” “It’s now almost impossible to make a wildlife documentary without a dose of anthropomorphism,” conceding that producers “are probably right to assume that few people want to sit in a theater and watch animals doing animal stuff for two hours; viewers need to emotionally invest.”
Walt Disney, notably, played a pivotal role in creating that format. He produced a series of movies, titled “True-Life Adventures,” in the 1950s and the nature fare in Disney’s weekly TV program, which sought to foster appreciation of wild animals but emphasized entertainment more than education.
More recently, Disneynature has employed a similar approach on a string of theatrical films — “Monkey Kingdom,” “Born in China,” “Penguins” — whose releases are usually timed to Earth Day. Those movies feature real animals, while wrapping an environmental message in a family-friendly package.
Of course, the past decade has seen an explosion of nature documentaries originating in the United Kingdom, where filmmakers have capitalized on technical advances and high-definition devices to deliver jaw-dropping footage.
Those programs generally yield higher ratings in the UK than they do in the US. “Planet Earth II,” for example, broke records in the UK in 2016, with the premiere drawing more than 9 million viewers.
Nevertheless, the appetite for content has created an expansive market worldwide for documentaries, like “Our Planet,” “Dynasties” and “Hostile Planet,” and a bounty of options for fans of such shows. Once relegated to PBS, networks like BBC America, National Geographic and Discovery Channel carry such fare, as well as Netflix.
Despite the starker vision of the natural world that those programs present, they are still cleverly packaged to conform to familiar templates of dramatic storytelling.
Discovery Channel’s next venture, the six-part “Serengeti,” premieres in August, promising “the heartwarming stories of a cast of African wildlife including lions, zebras, baboons and cheetahs over the course of a year.”
“The Lion King” represents a different, inherently more commercial way of tapping into the wild kingdom, making nature more palatable for mass consumption. If it’s too bad that real animals can’t quite compete, given the Darwinian challenge of standing out in the crowded media world, it is, after all, a jungle out there.
“The Lion King” opens July 19 in the US. “Serengeti” premieres August 4 on Discovery Channel.