‘The Lion King’ (2019) 4K Blu-ray Review: Picture Quality Royalty

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One unanticipated (by me, anyway) side effect of Disney’s questionable obsession with making live-action versions of its old animated classics is that it’s giving rise to some of cinema’s most beautiful and ground-breaking visuals and special effects.

The gorgeously stylized locations of . The uncanny blend of a real boy and beautiful CGI animals in The Jungle Book. The conversion of Will Smith into Aladdin’s dynamic blue genie… All have felt like ‘moments’ in Hollywood’s march towards making fantastical worlds look real.

The Lion King, though, simply towers over everything CGI that’s gone before. It’s nothing short of a technical masterpiece. A groundbreaking achievement that rewrites the digital effects rulebook. A genuine marvel even by the standards of a movie industry increasingly driven by a desire to serve up ever bigger, ever more spectacular visual experiences.

This does not mean that The Lion King remake is a masterpiece on the more traditional grounds of its storytelling and characters. Not least, ironically, because the sheer spectacle of it all, together with your familiarity with the story being told, actually distracts you from getting truly involved in what’s going on.

This feeling of focusing too much on the visuals doesn’t fade as the film plays on, either; you never just get used to the technical accomplishment you’re witnessing. Pretty much every shot makes you go ‘wow’. And when you’re feeling wowed, you’re not also feeling happy, or sad, or empathetic.

Weirdly, I also found that putting human voices to such realistic-looking animals creates a strangely dislocated experience. Perhaps because animal photorealism doesn’t leave the filmmakers with anywhere near as much scope for backing up the enthusiastic voice acting with similar amounts of visual exuberance and expressiveness.

It wouldn’t be fair to call The Lion King remake a triumph of style over substance. There is substance here; it’s The Lion King (again), after all. But personally I added it to my 4K Blu-ray collection not because I like the film as much as the original, but because it just looks so incredible. Which brings us to the 4K Blu-ray’s astounding picture quality…

Release Details

Studio: Disney

What you get: Region-free 4K Blu-ray, Region A/B/C HD Blu-ray, region-locked digital code (US)

Extra Features: 53-minute documentary split into roughly three parts, one on the score and voice talent, one on the visual effects and creating an all-digital world, and one on The Lion King’s legacy and cultural impact; music videos; skip to the songs; breakdowns of how three big scenes were created

Best sound mix: Dolby Atmos

HDR Picture Options: HDR10

Key kit used for this review: Panasonic 65GZ1500, Samsung 65Q90R, Panasonic UB820, Oppo 205

Picture quality

If you saw The Lion King remake at the cinema and thought it looked amazing, wait till you get your eyes on the 4K Blu-ray. It looks incredible. Jawdropping. Spectacular. Sensational. Awe-inspiring. Beautiful. Almost, dare I say it… perfect.

Making this all the more miraculous is the film’s seemingly quite confusing ‘journey’ in resolution terms. Allegedly it was ‘shot’ in 6.5k, but the CGI was rendered in 2K. And most of the film seems to be CGI. Then it seems to have only received a 2K digital intermediate for its cinema release. Which would almost certainly make the 4K image on the UHD Blu-ray an upscale.

All I can say is that if this is indeed the case, then we need to completely reevaluate our thoughts on upscaling. Because what we have here is the crispest, cleanest, most sensationally detailed and three-dimensional looking picture I’ve ever seen in my living room.

Its depiction of everything from the fur and feathers of the countless animals on show to the surrounding flora, deserts, valleys and rocky outcrops is just immaculate. Detail piles upon detail in every single corner of the immaculately rendered, incredibly dense, hyper-real image. And in this case, the corners of the image actually extend right to the corners of your TV, as the film is presented in a screen-filling 16:9 ratio. I can’t tell you how great it was to see every last pixel of my 75-inch screen getting put to such glorious use for a change.

I’m not slagging off 2.39/2.4:1-ratio films, of course. Not at all. But when you’ve got a film that’s such a mind-blowing feast for the eye as The Lion King remake, having it use all of your resolution real estate and occupy so much more of your field of view is a joy to behold.

Not surprisingly, The Lion King ‘s typical video bit-rate tracks much higher than that of some other Disney 4K Blu-ray releases. It even peaks above 100Mbps in one or two places – including the final shot of Simba’s son being held skyward. (Though it’s interesting to note, too, that there are also plenty of moments where the bit-rate drops to below 50Mbps without suddenly looking soft.)

It’s not just the incredible clarity and detail of the 4K Blu-ray picture that impresses about The Lion King 4K Blu-ray picture, either. Its use of 4K Blu-ray’s HDR and wide color attributes is also sensational.

Beautifully inky but also fantastically detailed and subtly shaded black levels share the screen with some truly spectacular levels of brightness. This brightness in particular steams ahead of the (frankly boring in comparison) HD Blu-ray presentation, in terms of both the whole screen brightness levels for daytime shots across the sun-drenched prairie, and the phenomenally intense brightness peaks it hits with direct shots of the sun, moon or lightning.

Colors look richer, more nuanced, and above all massively more natural, making the film’s imagery feel even more uncannily alive, realistic and tangible. The HD Blu-ray feels really quite insipid and flat in comparison – as it did, actually, at the non-HDR cinema I saw the film at. In short, unless, perhaps, you saw it at a Dolby Cinema or in laser IMAX, you really haven’t seen 2019’s The Lion King until you’ve seen it in proper HDR on this 4K Blu-ray.

It’s worth saying, too, that The Lion King 2019’s immaculate use of expanded color and HDR plays its part in selling that remarkable sense of detail and three-dimensional space I mentioned earlier.

It’s hard not to reflect on just how incredible the picture quality might have looked if Disney had seen fit to deliver it in Dolby Vision or HDR10+, rather than just ‘basic’ HDR10. For once, though, it feels kind of churlish to moan about the lack of a dynamic HDR option when the HDR10 picture quality on show is so extraordinarily good.

Sound quality

The Lion King 4K Blu-ray gets a Dolby Atmos mix, while the HD Blu-ray only gets DTS-HD. Which sounds like another great reason on top of the stunning picture quality to buy the 4K Blu-ray over the HD one.

First impressions, though, aren’t good. The Dolby Atmos mixes sounds weirdly muted, compressed and flat. But of course, this is another Disney Dolby Atmos mix, meaning it’s been mastered to disc much quieter than most. So I cranked my system’s volume up higher – in this case MUCH higher – than I would normally have it set for listening to Dolby Atmos mixes.

This simple volume boost transforms things to some extent. The rear and height channels now actually sound like they’re doing more than just whispering, and the mix now sounds like it’s got some proper scale to it. The songs actually gain room-filling staging and presence, large animal footfalls gain substance, you can pick out much more subtle detailing, and best of all, Mustafa’s big roar moments now actually sound kingly.

I don’t know why Disney’s Atmos mixes are consistently mastered so quietly compared with those of other studios – and it continues to be annoying. But at least in this case (unlike some of Disney’s Marvel releases) the mix is satisfying when the volume’s cranked up.

The more scale and objects there are in The Lion King’s imagery, the better it looks on the 4K … [+]

Photo: The Lion King, Disney

I wouldn’t say the mix sounds as good as it could have done, though. Some treble details sound quite harsh, as if they’re being slightly compressed. At the other end of the spectrum, bass tends to be rather all or nothing, driving your subwoofer either really hard or not much at all.

This latter situation can mean that, for instance, a zebra can feel like it has as much weight as an elephant. And when the fatal stampede happens, its rumbles feel rather baggy and overwhelming versus the rest of the mix.

There were many occasions, too, where I felt like the mix missed clear chances to use the height and rear channels to create transition effects to back up the sense of a three-dimensional audio space beyond the onscreen action.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh here (feel free to let me know your own thoughts on the Atmos mix via my Twitter channel linked to at the end of the article). For me, though, I just didn’t feel it was nearly as reference grade as the picture quality.

Extras

The Lion King 2019’s extras run for more than an hour, and are all found on the HD Blu-ray. They’re dominated by a 53-minute making of documentary built around three different sections: One focusing on the recording of the score and voice acting, one looking at the amazing new visual design, and one covering The Lion King’s cultural impact. Though this last one also confusingly circles back again to the voice acting towards the end.

The visual design part of the making-of documentary is easily the most interesting – especially the section where they go into how they created the film’s world as essentially a VR video game. But there’s tons of behind the scenes footage and access to all the voice and production talent throughout the entire making of documentary, so the whole 53 minutes are worth your time.

Next up are looks at how three of the key song sections in the film were created, blending before and after special effects designs with shots of the singers and orchestra all doing their respective things. You kind of get the idea after the first one, so it’s debatable if you need to watch the other two. But they’re all equally slickly put together, at least.

After this there are just a couple of music videos featuring Beyonce and Elton John performing the film’s new songs; the chance to skip directly to all the songs (it’s a shame this feature, at least, doesn’t appear on the 4K Blu-ray as well), and a short video about the work of various lion preservation organisations.

Verdict

Whether you like the film or not, and despite the audio mix not being reference level, the stunning full-screen images the UHD Blu-ray of The Lion King 2019 serve up make it an essential purchase for anyone who wants to see just what this 4K HDR fuss is really all about.

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