July 11, 2019
‘The Lion King’ Review: You Should Probably Just Revisit the Original Movie
Criticism is not consumer reporting, despite what some may tell you. If it was, this review of The Lion King would be exceptionally short. I’d simply point you to Amazon, where you can purchase a digital copy of the 1994 animated film of the same name for roughly the same amount of money as a movie-theater ticket, a drink and some candy would get you for watching a new version of the same story. But criticism isn’t consumer reporting; it’s an attempt to analyze what does and doesn’t work in any given work of art. To discuss Jon Favreau’s remake of this blend of naturalism and Shakespearean drama, and to briefly highlight how grossly misunderstood and misguided the film is, is no simple task.
If you’re even moderately familiar with the hand-drawn animated epic, the story of this new Lion King will come as no surprise. There is once again a lion cub named Simba who will one day become the king of Pride Rock, his virtuous and kind father Mufasa, and his embittered uncle Scar, who wants to become king himself and aims to do so at any cost. What Lion King 2.0 offers is not a new take on a familiar story in terms of character development and motivation, or dialogue, or music. No, the new comes in the form of the visual. Disney’s marketing department would like me to emphasize that this is a “photo-real” movie, not a live-action remake. (Anyone who did think this was a live-action remake may be surprised to learn that animals do not talk.)
Unquestionably, this film’s visuals are detailed and remarkable to behold, in the same way that it’s remarkable to behold a visual-effects demonstration of the newest, sleekest technology at a consumer expo. There’s little doubt that the money poured into making a vivid, photorealistic version of the African plains has paid off. For most of The Lion King, it’s true that you really can’t see the seams. In fact, it put me in mind of the experience of watching the 2000 Disney animated film Dinosaur; that film’s opening scenes depict a dinosaur egg being taken away by a rushing river, and did so with—at the time—realistic fluidity. The trick was quite incredible…until the dinosaurs opened their mouths and began talking.
The effect here is much the same. When you’re not watching lions, hyenas, meerkats, and warthogs talking on screen, it’s an impressive display of visual technology, a successful proof of concept. But The Lion King is not a silent film, and every time characters talk on screen, an instant sense of lifelessness sets in. As much as Favreau and the many visual-effects artists credited here have successfully recreated (at least to the eye of this viewer) the landscapes of Africa, it’s in service to a misguided idea. Photo-real animals look wrong when they talk or sing. (In this version, they don’t dance, because this film seems uncomfortable or unwilling to embrace its musical roots. It’s a shame.)
Simba, Nala, Scar, Mufasa, and the other characters here rarely are exciting when they converse with each other, because there’s always a distinct separation between animal and performer. Since the animals on screen do not have expression-heavy faces — unlike the characters in the hand-drawn film — it falls on the A-list cast to do the heavy lifting. Though most of the cast makes sense with the characters they play, from John Oliver as the snooty Zazu to Alfre Woodard as Simba’s prideful mother Sarabi, they almost all seem too distant from their characters. Even the legendary James Earl Jones, literally playing the same character as he did in the original, seems aloof as Mufasa instead of cuddly.
That’s almost certainly not a problem that starts with Jones or any of the other actors, though. For all the side-by-side comparisons you can find online of the visuals in the 1994 film and this one, the most telling comparison is between the two films’ senses of humor; to be brief, only the original has one. As dark as the story gets in the original, it’s often funny, vibrant, and bursting with personality. Jeremy Irons’ take on the loathsome Scar is louche, laid-back, and snide. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor is an excellent actor, his subdued take on the bad guy is a sign of the film’s almost deliberate lack of personality.
The two pleasant exceptions to this rule are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as the garrulous Timon and Pumbaa, who lead the mournful Simba down a path of no worries after running away from tragedy. Though they hit many of the same beats as the original duo did, Eichner and Rogen are both funny and given room to riff and improv in ways that mostly fit with the story, managing to be both fresh and respectful at the same time. Their moments are the only time when this film works.
Perhaps the truest representation of how The Lion King ‘19 otherwise stumbles is in a midpoint montage. As in the original, the mandrill Rafiki eventually realizes that Simba is still alive and ready to become king. As in the original, Rafiki realizes this by grabbing an errant feather that flies by his tree, somehow signifying Simba’s presence. In this film, though, we watch that feather travel from Simba to Rafiki, in a lengthy montage that owes a debt to another summer-1994 film with special-effects, Forrest Gump. Creatively, this montage serves literally no purpose. Of course, it exists to show off the technology of the new Lion King. And sure, it’s all photo-real. That doesn’t make this story livelier or more exciting. It simply serves as a reminder of how much trickery went into every shot of something that winds up so hollow.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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