An all too frequent answer to ‘why’ in the film industry is someone rubbing their thumb and forefinger together. As much as it should be, it’s not funny.
The Lion King remake, having at the time of writing just overtaken Disney’s Frozen as the most successful animated film of all time, like its precursor, is there to make money. But it should do and be something else.
The original, notably not a priority project for Disney compared to the then fledgling Pocahontas, was a risk for financial and artistic purposes. The remake, leveraging off nothing but the appeal of the original, is not.
Statedly in the words of the Director opting to stick as close as possible to the original which any watcher on their first, second or tenth viewing (uncountable in this author’s case) can more easily and cost-effectively seek out, The Lion King (2019) gives fans and newcomers very little reason for its existence beyond wanting to encourage this Disney renaissance renaissance; our latest release being the third remake so far this year.
And no, it is not a live action remake by any objective measure whatever the studio wants us to think; it is in every respect an animated remake of the 1994 original. The first film this author saw in cinemas, it bears significance for many and myself no less not just for proffering a generation a definitively primeval, stunning fable which continues to wreak havoc with our emotions, but for depicting the land of my childhood and the sounds of my formative and adult years so vividly.
African nations and music being largely absent from mainstream cinema, it’s still remarkable and heart-warming that the emblematic movie experience of many childhoods remains an account and example of that most stunning and ill-deservedly bereft from cinema.
Turning to this newest take, in being so avowedly faithful with such a rote regurgitation all this really has to offer anyone (who should use this opportunity to visit the original) is what it does new, or different. First and foremost there’s the animation.
Gorgeous, vivid and technically brilliant but still deep in this uncanny valley encompassing the Pride Lands, for the nature scenes absent dialogue one could just as well google Animal Planet or National Geographic. Trust me, it’s more exciting, as are the Homeward Bounds and Meerkat Manors which heaven forbid just used real animals.
As for the speaking parts, it beggars belief that Jon Favreau no less, who directed the Jungle Book remake featuring the markedly-realistic, still emphatically rendered Bagheera, among others, in his newest outing with cats would largely opt for realism at the expense of the characters emoting.
For with some exceptions there is very little emotion in these faces and it’s only more disconcerting when we get to “Hakuna Matata,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and more; numbers intended for exuberantly-staged, colourful showings with cubs now but running through a stream. ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight,’ meant to convey a burgeoning romance and inexplicably taking place during the day, is perhaps this film’s most ill-judged number save of course ‘Be Prepared.’ A song-speech rendition with Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hopping between small outcrops without any of the vibrant menace or environment of Jeremy Irons’ magnificent version, it is a very low point amidst many.
Significantly, not only does The Lion King borrow from it’s namesake but from another animated success which likewise took inspiration from the 1994 smash. Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt was deliberately timed and produced to tap into The Lion King’s broad appeal. The Savannah-set triumph more a product of Exodus than Hamlet as widely touted, The Prince of Egypt in turn took stylistic inspiration from Mufasa’s showing in the clouds for Moses’ burning bush encounter, which has again now been emulated in The Lion King (2019) through Mufasa’s here faceless appearance to Simba in the heavens; emulated by but a booming voice. Something something circle of life.
It is remarkable that The Lion King was released in the same week as the much-mocked Cats trailer which, depicting human faces superimposed on cats’ bodies, is at the opposite end of a very strange spectrum. With filmmakers and talented voice actors for decades past finding compelling ways to depict animated characters, for the record there is a very large middle ground from which The Lion King creators have steered clear.
Billy Eichner (Timon) and Seth Rogen (Pumba) make the best use of this form, coyly alluding to another Disney classic in one of the best gags, though they both could have been so much better had the puppet-masters actually deigned their faces to, well, move.
What is however new and thrilling are some of the action sequences, with the lions’ fighting captured more vividly and capably than possible in 1994. The final confrontation and the stampede are the best scenes herein and they are stunning to watch, as is Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) fall.
Jones, the only returning cast member, as with his reprisal in Rogue One sounds distinctly different and, decades having elapsed between these depictions of his two most iconic characters, here does not measure a tone to match the age and life stage emulated by Mufasa’s animators. Jon Oliver is perfectly adequate as Zazu though never nearly so entertaining as the much more cartoonish Rowan Atkinson. Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), Eric Andre (Azizi) and Florence Kasumba (Shenzi) deliver much of the new material with the hyenas’ depictions; it lands some of the time.
Ejiofor is a much more menacing Scar than his precursor; the absence of Irons and the earlier animation’s explicitly queer overtones, the original Scar being viewed by many as one of cinema’s most famous queer figures, is a major detraction from this newest version; robbing it of the dimensions, nuance and implicit commentary so valuable to the earlier outing.
Donald Glover (Simba) and Beyonce (Nala) are marked improvements over the characters’ original casting, though their vocal stylings are noticeably ill-matched for the aforementioned duet. Glover’s much more traditional rendition is so disparate from Beyonce’s approach that it’s beyond distracting. This could have been avoided, but that would have depended on one of the crew telling Beyonce not to harmonise.
Fun in stretches when not stuck in an uncanny rut, anyone still wondering why this exists must know by now that Disney just can’t wait to stay king.
The Lion King is in cinemas now