Disney calls 'The Lion King' live-action. The Golden Globes just nominated it for best animated feature

Key Points
  • The Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated "The Lion King" for best animated film.
  • Disney classifies "The Lion King" as live-action.
  • The distinction doesn't matter to most moviegoers, but it does matter to box office analysts.
A still from Disney's "The Lion King" featuring Nala (Beyonce Knowles) and Simba (Donald Glover).

Disney has been a clear winner at the box office this year. Not only will the company haul in more than $10 billion globally from movie ticket sales this year, it's also already the top contender for next year's award season.

On Monday, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association revealed that Disney was nominated for three of the five slots it had allotted for the best animated feature category.

"Toy Story 4," "Frozen II" and "The Lion King" are in the running for the prize against "Missing Link" and "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World."

There's only one hitch — Disney does not consider "The Lion King" film to be an animated feature. The company, instead, classifies it as live action, although all but one shot from the film was rendered digitally.

Disney did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

"I don't think of it as animated," Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, said. "I think of animated as a cartoon. I also don't think 'Lion King' is live-action. It's just a different animal."

And Stone isn't the only one questioning where "The Lion King" fits.

While "The Lion King" was created digitally, all of the characters and sets were built in a computer, the intention was for the film to look as real as possible. It was the same technology and under the same direction as "The Jungle Book."

Only this time around there were no humans to anchor the story in reality. Instead, the only live shot is the first one. Director Jon Favreau revealed in July that the opening shot of "The Circle of Life" is the only moment of the film that wasn't created by the animators.

Still from Disney's remake of "The Lion King" featuring Mufasa, a young Simba and Zazu in the pridelands.

"The advancements of technology sometimes force the rules to be changed," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. "Animation used to be completely hand-drawn by people. But these technologies often cause ambiguities in the way we define things."

"If it's your movie, do you then get to decide what it is?" he asked.

In the eyes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, "The Lion King" fits squarely in its animation category. When reached for comment, the HFPA pointed CNBC to its eligibility guidelines.

"Movement and characters' performances must be created using a frame-by-frame technique," the Golden Globes' rules stipulate. "Each animated image must be created or manipulated by an animator through hand drawing, stop motion, pixilation, animation software or a similar technique."

In addition, any film with less than 75% animation of its main characters does not qualify as an animated motion picture.

Similar rules apply for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards. However, the Academy has one caveat that the Globes does not.

"If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action," the rules state.

So, it's possible Disney could be classifying the film as live-action so that it can be eligible for the Academy Award for best picture.

The distinction doesn't matter to most moviegoers, but it does matter to box office analysts.

If "The Lion King" is an animated film, it is the highest grossing one of all time. If it's not, that honor belongs to "Frozen."

"If you have a top ten list, it's hugely important that the No. 1 film is actually the No. 1 film," Dergarabedian said. "These distinctions determine the category within which we place these movies and that's really important.

For example, when putting together a list of the top horror movies, is "Sixth Sense" considered part of that list? Or is it more a psychological thriller? If you're making a list of the top Christmas-themed movies, does "Die Hard" make the cut?

"This just proves that film definitions can be very subjective," Dergarabedian said.