THE LION KING (dir. Jon Favreau): Beautiful and utterly pointless

Beautiful, and utterly pointless.
Beautiful, and utterly pointless.

Disney is a company whose commodity has always been imagination. They’ve built a multibillion dollar empire on the magic of storytelling and all that it entails. For the better part of a century, the ever-growing entertainment conglomerate also made it a point to develop technology in tandem with the stories they tell. Neck and neck, film tech and cinematic imagination raced to the top in hopes of creating purely entertaining, cutting edge family entertainment. But somewhere along the line the technology kept moving forward while the imagination stagnated. Certainly, in the realm of Star Wars and Marvel, there’s still plenty of creativity to go around, but even in those niche pockets of the Disney brand, things often feel a little…samey. When it comes to the studio’s original properties, the gulf between craft and story is often humongous. It’s never been more clear than in the modern updates of their animated classics. All have been visually impressive, some have been passable, and one in particular was absolute garbage. Just total, stinky, rotten garbage.

I’m talking about Aladdin. That movie was trash trash trash. 

One thing that all of these remakes share is their uncanny ability to remind the viewer of each film’s superior animated counterpart, which automatically calls into question why these remakes exist in the first place. The answer, of course, is money. 

Disney’s latest entry in this project, a photo-real update of The Lion King, is far from trash. In fact, it’s probably one of the better remakes, but it is also the most emblematic example of the frustrating pointlessness of it all. We get it, mouse. You can make a cartoon lion look real…but can you make it feel real? Can you give it personality? Can you do anything at all with it that feels like art? No, not really. By limiting these creatures to real-world physics, you lose a lot of what makes a musical about lions performing Hamlet so darn special.  So here I sit, a confused critic, convinced that he’s just seen the best CG imagery that has ever found its way to the big screen, while also sure that he’s just seen the biggest waste of said technology that has ever found its way to the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent movie. It has to be, really. No matter how much flashy imagery you layer on top of it, The Lion King remains a classic story (as does Hamlet). You’d have to work very hard to screw it up. 

Which is sort of what happened here.

The film blows its wad in the very first scene. If you remember back to the superior 1994 version, the sun rises over pride rock as all the animals in Mufasa’s kingdom gather around to witness the unveiling of baby Simba, their future leader. Circle of Life plays as we are treated to a beautiful cavalcade of exotic animals, all bowing to herald in a new generation of prosperity in their land. It’s a stunning sequence in 2D animation, and the 3D rendering of it is a real jaw-dropper. When it ended, I leaned over to my neighbor and said “I can’t believe how thoroughly this is working for me.” It’s breathtaking in the most literal sense, and almost immediately I was fighting off genuine tears. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this was the work of the world’s greatest exotic animal trainer. Even though I’m about to tender a lukewarm review, let me assure you that this opening sequence alone is worth your ticket price.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film never comes even remotely close to this level of majesty. 

We all know the tale: Mufasa is the king, and his brother Scar has spent his entire life (justly, if you ask me) coveting his brother’s good fortune. Together with his gang of outcast hyenas, they hatch a plan to kill Mufasa and send Simba into exile, effectively making Scar the new king of the pridelands. Simba grows up with his outsider buddies Timon and Pumbaa, and is eventually called back to the kingdom to save it from Scar’s Trumpian ways. Beat for beat, and mostly shot for shot, this newfangled Lion King marches purposefully through the story we all know until it reaches the ending we all know. 

There are a few small touches that attempt to justify the film’s existence, such as a prolonged sequence following a tuft of Simba’s hair through its own micro circle of life. While these attempts are noble and well-rendered, none are enough to justify spending so much time making an inferior version of a movie that was made better 25 years ago (nor are they enough to validate extending a 90 minute story into two hours).
The real tragedy is how clear it is that the people who put their boots on the ground to make this movie really did care. Not a corner was cut on any level of production. It looks and sounds magical, and the voice talent is clearly having the time of their lives. Even the ham-fisted insertion of a new Beyoncé song feels earnest and works pretty well (its a good song too!). All of the pieces are there except for one: WHY?!?! 
And no, “because we can” is not a good enough reason.

The voice talent is functional, with Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa being the real standouts. More so than any of the rest of the cast, they were given license to update the material. They hit on a few of the comedic notes of the original film, but a lot of their banter feels improvised and fresh. They light up the screen any time they are on it. They’re so good in fact, that future viewings of the 1994 film will be different since, until now, we were never primed to think of Timon and Pumbaa as a stoner duo. Another reason they work so well is the fact that meerkats and warthogs are foreign enough to the average viewer that their faces can afford to be a bit more expressive while still meeting the task of being photo-real (don’t you DARE call it live-action).

The same can’t be said for the rest of the creatures, however. Lions don’t emote with their faces, and birds don’t have lips, so to barricade their image from any level of cartoonishness is to shoot any attempt at emotional resonance right in the foot — sorry, paw. As such, so many of these beloved characters don’t feel like characters at all. Back in 1994 I would root for Simba because he’s Simba. Now I root for him because he looks like a real cat and real cats are furry and adorable.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Scar with less bravado than his predecessor (Jeremy Irons), which works to make him feel more expressly evil, but when it comes time to sing his big number, Ejiofor might as well have stayed home. He talks his way through Be Prepared with no life at all. It’s such a far cry from Irons’ arch delivery that its almost offensive. The same goes for every musical number in the film, at least visually speaking.

ince the characters on screen can’t do anything that a real animal can’t do, even the well performed songs are a total slog. Hakuna Matata used to be a big vaudevillian production, bubbling over with the visual panache afforded to a film not restrained by reality. Here it’s a snooze. The song sounds similar, but the characters performing it can do no more than just walk around while they sing. It’s in these scenes that the uncanny valley is most felt, and I found myself questioning why this iteration kept the musical numbers at all.

Beyoncé, Donald Glover, John Oliver — the entirety of the cast, really — are wasted. The performers do their best, for sure, but they’re all lost behind characters that CAN’T EMOTE. We should count ourselves as lucky, however, that we get to hear James Earl Jones do one of his most iconic roles a second time. Mufasa’s voice is as booming as it ever was, but the crackle of age has emerged. Matched with the haggard face of a realistic lion, it’s one aspect of the update that really works. Mufasa is an all-time great character, and Jones is an all-time great icon.

But don’t get me started on the scene where Mufasa appears in the clouds. Like all of the wider, more expansive shots that this film updates, it’s something the filmmakers simply HAD to nail. They didn’t. It’s not as egregious as when the updated Beauty and the Beast saw fit to put Mrs. Potts’ spout on the side of her head rather than making it her nose, but it’s close. 

Still, it’s a curiosity worth seeing. For a project that absolutely does not and never will need to exist, you could certainly do much worse. If it were the first iteration of the story, the limitations of realism wouldn’t be so glaring. But since Disney has most of the money that exists, and all of the resources to create transcendent entertainment, it’s downright wrong that they’re being so risk averse in their output. They need to take this technology and use it to give us something new, something bold. Cuz let’s face it: they will soon run out of things to remake, and at that point, there’s a real chance that the goodwill we afford them will have run out. After that happens, Disney will have to be careful with how they allocate film budgets. Can you imagine it? They sure can’t. 

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