The Lion King (2019)
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogan
Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama
MPAA Rating: PG (for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements)
Runtime: 1 hr 58 min
Release Date: July 19, 2019
The King is back.
Disney's The Lion King is the third "live action" (using that term loosely) remake of the studio's property this year alone, after Dumbo and Aladdin, and the sixth remake in the past 4 years. The original film, though only 25 years old, is already a beloved classic for its rich, emotionally driven story, beautiful soaring score, dynamic soundtrack, and talented voice cast and acting. But, given Disney's recent obsession with remaking their classics, it was only a matter of time before The Lion King received its second iteration. Few doubted it would sell well at the box office--the question was if it could justify its own existence beyond a money grab.
For all of its faults, (we'll get to them), one positive thing about this remake is unanimously undeniable: the visual effects work. I saw this film in IMAX, and it was even more striking than I anticipated from the trailers. Not only do the lions have incredible, pinpoint detail in their eyes, fur, and overall appearance, but their movement (something far too often overlooked in the art of CGI) is astoundingly fluid and realistic. They walk, run, leap, and fight like real lions, and the realism is only broken up by the fact that these animals open their mouths to talk and occasionally sing. And it doesn't stop with the lions. The landscape they live in is intricately woven as well, with photorealistic trees, hills, grass, and water. It's some of the best CGI work I've ever seen, and probably the most realistic computer generated display of an environment since Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013). It's that good.
Another large positive beyond the visuals is the humor that comes from Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). The original film certainly offered several laughs from this duo, but the remake significantly expands the comedic chemistry between them, making for some strong lighthearted scenes. Credit also needs to be given to Rogan and Eichner--particularly Rogan, who delivers a memorable performance as the obese-conscious lovable warthog.
Screenwriters will tell you that, without a strong, compelling villain to oppose your protagonist, your story will suffer. And one of the reasons The Lion King's story is so impactful, emotional, and heartbreaking is the creation of its antagonist, Scar--Mufasa's brother who coldly murders him (and blames and lies to the young Simba) to usurp his place as King of the Pride Lands. The remake, though it lacks Jeremy Irons' wickedly conniving voice performance, features a more menacing visual presence in Scar. His ragged, thin, gaunt appearance, though initially met with online criticism, serves the character well, and an added night scene involving him stalking around the pride for any runaways (like Nala) yields welcome suspense and terror to his reign as King, as does his goal to make Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) his Queen--a natural plot element that's surprisingly completely unseen in the original film. Finally, his climactic fight with Simba, though not shot for shot with the original, is still epic and engrossing for the fact that you can feel the weight of these two large animals clashing--another props to the visual effects team.
Despite these positives, The Lion King remake, in its quest to become so photorealistic (in which it succeeds in spades), fails to conjure the emotion in its characters that highlighted and helped define the original classic. These lions, like real life lions, don't have eyebrows, they don't cry, they don't smile, and they don't laugh. And that yields a major problem when you have voice actors doing all of those things. None of those emotions translate on screen, and so we are left with a visual gap in performances that's constantly frustrating. It's sad and oddly poetic, that Disney created such visual splendor but by doing so, stripped themselves of the emotion that's needed to make the story succeed.
For all of its adherence to the original film, some of the changes to larger scenes from dialogue and shot standpoints hamper the remake as well. For instance, the pivotal scene with Mufasa appearing to Simba in the clouds is altered, with some of the deep dialogue completely cut out and Mufasa's appearance harder to see (again, to look more visually realistic). Later, in the epic, penultimate scene where Simba finally takes his place as King on top of Pride Rock, shots of his paws climbing (which were meant as a call back to when his paw print fit inside his fathers) are missing, as well as the symbolic antelope skull falling by the wayside from the rain. It's frustrating, since the film mirrors the original shot for shot for so many other, less important scenes but alters shots (for the worse) in the vital scenes.
Though it is a visual spectacle to behold, The Lion King can't hold its ground to justify its existence as a remake. The story is still there of course, but the emotion has evaporated. The music still holds up and the new singers deliver strong performances, but those performances aren't able to permeate the photorealistic expressions of the characters. Disney should take a lesson from this, but they won't--not when the film grosses $191 million in its opening domestic weekend. The only thing we can hope for is that the remakes forthcoming (and there will be many) are those that contain human characters.
Written by Anthony Watkins, July 24, 2019