Synopsis – After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.
My Take – With Disney enjoying tremendous box office success with the live action interpretations of The Jungle Book and the recently released Aladdin, which despite mixed reviews has earned close to $1 billion worldwide, it was inevitable that someday it was going to tap into remaking 1994 Classic, a Hamlet inspired animated animals film, which upon release went on to become one of the most well-known, famous and iconic films of all time.
However, this Jon Favereau directed film is not technically a live-action film, as none of it was created with any legitimate environments or cast members, but instead a photorealistic world of animals talking and hierarchy within the animal kingdom.
If the task set here was to just recreate the original, then on a technical level, this film could be deemed a major success. The CG water really looks like water. The CG rocks really look like rocks. The CG plants really look like plants. The CG dust really looks like dust. The CG fur really looks like fur. If Earth transforms into a husk of its former self in the next 100 years, this film will play an important historical role in our future.
Yet as a film, it doesn’t have any of the same impact. It’s painted and traced over, but for whatever reason, the soul of it is missing. Unlike with this year’s Dumbo, which pushed past the plot markers of the 1941 film, or even Aladdin, which saw an opportunity for the underserved Jasmine, it looked like the team behind this film just never felt the need to work on any sort of improvement other than a hyper-realistic overhaul.
On one hand, it’s an admirable show of technological advancement and, presumably, a way to allow a whole generation of young audience the chance to have this film be the first film they see on the big screen. On the other hand, it’s a potential symptom of what many believe to be a lack of imagination and prioritization of big studio money over making new cinematic classics.
Sure, has its moments and if you never saw the original, this would definitely mean a lot to you. However, the fact remains that it’s not an original effort, and it will always be compared to the original and ultimately comes up short against it because nothing can replace the original – not even an all-star cast, a new song, or cutting-edge computer graphics. It suffers by virtue of being a remake when the original was so perfect on its own, and so clear in memory.
The story follows Simba (voiced by JD McCrary), a young lion club born to Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard), the King and Queen of the Pride Lands. Eager to follow his father’s gigantic footsteps, the young prince along with his friend Nala (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph), often find himself in trouble, despite severe warnings from Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), who acts as the majordomo to the King.
While Mufasa often ends up rescuing him, tragedy finally strikes when his Simba’s evil uncle Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) manipulates him into causing a situation which leads to his beloved father’s death. Convinced that he would be dealt harshly especially by his mother, the guilt ridden cub escapes to a distant land, where he is rescued and befriended by Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner), a meerkat and Pumba (voiced by Seth Rogen), a warthog.
Meanwhile, Scar takes over the Pride Lands and has let chaos of all kinds loose. While Simba (voiced by Donald Glover), grows into a young lion living a carefree life, it is not until his re-counter with a grown up Nala (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and Rafiki (voiced by John Kani), the shaman of the Pride Lands, that he is reminded of his responsibility towards his kingdom and the circle of life.
As nature documentaries go, the modern remake gives some of the best a run for their money, quite literally. With a $250 million price tag, it achieves digitally what David Attenborough has spent his life capturing on camera. The result is jaw-droppingly photorealistic. Every tress of fur, crack in the arid soil and sun-swept vista is rendered in such immense detail that it’s unsurprising that many people are calling this reboot live-action.
It’s a monumental technical achievement and the level of visual fidelity on display alone warrants seeing this film on the biggest screen possible. There are also plenty of moments that act as a throwback to the original, which has occupied a ‘lion’s share’ of our pop-culture universe. Simba’s fatherly bonding with Mufasa is one of the most endearing moments of the film.
But in terms of the story, the film follows the original so closely that it can’t help but feel second rate. Scene-by-scene, it dutifully ticks off the story beats of the 1994 original, with little by way of surprises in-between. It also doesn’t help that film’s photo-realism unavoidably limits the ability of the animals to convey emotion without looking unnatural or (naturally) cartoonish, and the result is a film that often creates indifference where there should be wonder. Yes, with jaw-dropping visuals, plenty of humor and solid renditions of timeless songs, it’s hard to see this modern remake failing but, as it turns out, the film’s biggest achievement also ends up being its biggest flaw.
They speak, but their mouths barely move. Their faces have blank expressions. Most of their body language doesn’t even seem to resemble the genuine articles. This becomes a problem when director Favreau and his production team are trying to adapt the same scenes from the original film but have the animal characters move and act more like real animals, since it is supposed to look live-action.
For example, the scene where Mufasa is killed is arguably even more dramatic this time around, but when the dust settles and Scar guilt-trips Simba into fleeing Pride Lands, you don’t feel anything because the characters, by design, are incapable of conveying human emotions.
Compare this with directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 film, which contains one of the most devastating shots in Disney’s entire animated catalogue: little Simba, having laid down beside his stricken father, turns his head to look up at his uncle, and for a brief moment we can see that the fur on his cheek is wet from crying.
Real lions can’t cry, of course, so it would be inaccurate and possibly jarring for Simba to shed a tear in the equivalent scene in director Favreau’s film. But what good is authenticity if it denies emotional connection? What the animators failed to achieve with the 2019 remake is proof of how crucial and important the animators of the Disney Renaissance were to those classic, iconic films.
They created a significant part of the characters acting and physical performance. They made those flat, hand-drawn characters into living, breathing and indelible icons. The characters were brought to life onscreen in a vivid way. The few changes in the film also come off as arbitrary. They don’t improve the experience much in any way or really add some sort of breakthrough new achievement.
For example, director Favreau probably thought it was too awkward for Rafiki to be more like a shaman and walk around Pride Rock with a staff, but instead to use it as a practiced bow staff later in the film. Thankfully, the climactic moments have the required amount of turbulence, and Simba’s journey from a reluctant heir to a confident savior is well-portrayed, despite relying heavily on the usual tropes and archetypes. However, one wishes that Nala’s character could’ve been more powerful and explored.
The actor’s vocal performances certainly aren’t helped by the rather unremarkable attitude purveyed throughout the experience. Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter, talented singers though they are, can’t seem to push their own personalities and performances enough to make any kind of an impact. Instead JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright get more scope.
Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen succeed in turning Timon and Pumba, the wisecracking double act at the film’s comic center. John Oliver also tries hard to inject some humor. Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are also not bad as the hyenas. While James Earl Jones, John Kani and Alfre Woodard add gravitas, Chiwetel Ejiofor is clearly a miscast.
It’s actually a bit of a shame this is remake of a beloved film, if this was its own film about a different group of animals who didn’t sing and didn’t come with all that cinematic baggage, it would be one of modern film’s biggest technical triumphs. On the whole, ‘The Lion King’ is an absolutely gorgeous yet soulless remake which will only engage a less familiar audience.
Directed – Jon Favreau
Rated – PG
Run Time – 118 minutes