“Doesn’t this seem familiar?”, one big cat asks of another in director Jon Favreau’s remake of Disney’s much loved 1994 animated musical The Lion King. Yes, yes, it sure does seem familiar. Remake, rinse, reboot, repeat. Such is the circle of life for Disney as the studio continues their campaign to wring every last dollar out of their back catalogue with a series of ‘live action’ remakes that are now arriving at a pace few parents could afford to financially keep up with. We’re only halfway through 2019 and we’ve already had remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin and now The Lion King.
Unlike Favreau’s awe-inspiring The Jungle Book, which seamlessly mixed up Kipling’s original tale with dashes of Disney’s animated classic and a few original elements, The Lion King sticks firmly to the plot of the original. To be fair to the house that Mickey built, some of Disney’s remakes have been worthwhile. Along with the aforementioned Jungle Book, Maleficent gave us a heart-warming new take on Sleeping Beauty, and with his update of Pete’s Dragon, director David Lowery was allowed to apply his particular brand of Americana. Most have simply been pointless, none more so than Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, which added nothing to the centuries old tale.
Others, like Beauty and the Beast and Christopher Robin, completely lost their charm in the translation from 2D animation to live-action. In the case of the former, the live-action rendering heightened the problematic element of its central relationship, while the latter became a depressing dirge that no child would sit through.
Favreau’s Lion King can’t really be considered ‘live-action’ as every frame is animated to create the illusion that we’re really watching life play out on the African tundra. The opening ‘Circle of Life’ sequence is quite something to behold, but the problems arise as soon as the animals start opening their jaws and beaks.
In the early ‘80s, the cult British comic ‘Eagle’ experimented with photo-stories, replacing hand drawn artwork with poorly framed photographs, usually starring whoever happened to be hanging around the office at the time. The comic quickly realized that such an approach severely limited the stories they could tell, as there are are only so many scenarios you can create in a suburban office, while the pencil allows you to explore unlimited worlds. Favreau runs into the same problem here. If you want the audience to believe they’re watching actual animals, you can’t have them dancing around like they did in the animated version, so the musical numbers here are pretty much redundant. Where the original accompanied its songs with montages that exploited the potential of animation, Favreau simply has his animals trot along as the lyrics come out of their gaping maws in an unconvincing fashion.
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Along with the comedy, which rarely lands here, the musical sequences jar with the rest of the movie. This Lion King is a tonal car crash. The photo-realism strips the story down to its Darwinian carcass, leaving us in no doubt about the cruelty of life in the animal kingdom. You can give Simba and his friends all the cute dialogue you want, but once you make him look like an actual lion you leave the audience in no doubt as to why he’s the King - because he belongs to the most intimidating species around. When animals fight here, the realistic effects adds an element of grimness that traditional animation concealed. Prepare to witness a warthog gore a hyena with its tusks, a lion throw another lion off a cliff, and a wounded lion devoured by a pack of hyenas. Yes, more animals die in this thing than in Cannibal Holocaust. The lion might sleep tonight, but I’m not sure your children will.
The animation is so convincing most of the time that the few moments when it’s not so polished really stand out. The lions look incredible, the hyenas not so much, as though the former were animated with enthusiasm on a Tuesday morning while the latter were knocked off at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon with one eye on the clock.
Despite The Lion King’s failings, I remain an advocate of this sort of realistic animation. But Disney and others need to realize that if it looks like a lion it needs to behave like a lion. The Lion King doesn’t work chiefly because it feels like a human story has been shoehorned into the kill or be killed milieu of the animal kingdom. No amount of goofy supporting characters and musical numbers can disguise the fact that free of its animated trappings, this is now a tale of the survival of the fittest. Remove the animals’ speech and ditch the songs and this could have been an affecting fable in the manner of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s tales of the wild. There’s one standout sequence in which Favreau’s camera follows a clump of hair that strays from Simba’s mane and ends up going on its own little journey, and at that point it becomes clear that this is the movie we should be watching, a story of life in the natural world, free of human interference. What might Terrence Malick do with this technology?
Sadly, when it comes to big-budget filmmaking, Hollywood appears to have adopted ‘Hakuna Matata’ as its creed. Just knock it out without much thought. For an example of how little consideration has been put into this film, consider the voice casting. All the animals speak with British or American accents, all that is, save for one who speaks with an African accent. Can you guess what type of animal it is? Yep, a fucking monkey. Old Walt would be proud.
The Lion King 1 1/2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Jon Favreau; Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé