A stunning technical achievement, this photo-realistic Disney remake fails to convey the powerful emotions of the story.
Image: Lions, especially photo-realistic lions, aren’t the most expressive creatures in the jungle. The Lion King. Source: Disney.
No-one knows the circle of life better than Disney. Other studios make a movie, then maybe make a sequel or two if it’s a hit: since the original animated film hit cinemas in 1994, The Lion King has had two direct-to-video sequels, a separate telemovie sequel, two spin-off television series, several video games and the third-longest running musical in Broadway history. The surprise with this remake isn’t that it exists, it’s that they left us waiting so long.
Unlike Disney’s other recent remakes of their animated classics, this isn’t a live-action version. Everything up on the screen is animated (even the landscapes) using CGI techniques to create what they’re calling a “photo-real” world filled with life-like characters. It’s a stunning achievement by director Jon Favreau and his team on the technical side. Artistically? Maybe not so much.
When the current lion king of the Pridelands Mufasa (the voice of James Earl Jones) fathers a son, Simba (JD McCrary), the only one not happy is the king’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). With his chance of inheriting the throne gone, and his last attempt to challenge it so unsuccessful he’s literally named after the wound he received during it, he decides to get sneaky.
First he preys on the young prince’s naivety; then he teams up with the Prideland’s traditional enemies, the local hyena population. But when he finally gets what he wants, he doesn’t know there’s a loose end – Simba isn’t dead, just too ashamed to return to his people. And while he grows up to be a carefree slacker (now voiced by Donald Glover) thanks largely to the guidance of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner), when he finally finds out the plight of his homeland, is there any real doubt he’ll return and fight?
If you’ve seen the original animated version you’ll notice you’re not seeing anything very new here. It’s the same story, at times down to the same camera angles, with the same toe-tapping songs scattered throughout. “If it ain’t broke” isn’t the worst approach for a remake, and it’s clear the point wasn’t to repair a flawed story or update the morality – though this version does make sure to present the King as a custodian of his kingdom rather than a ruler – but to showcase new technology using a tried and tested crowd-pleasing story. Unfortunately if anyone stopped to think that lions, especially photo-realistic lions, aren’t the most expressive creatures in the jungle the message didn’t reach head office.
The Lion King is a story driven almost entirely by primal emotions – fear, shame, envy, love – none of which the main cast can convey with their expressions in any way. Powerful emotional moments are constantly deflated by cutting to an impassive lion’s face; even when an emotion can be detected there, it’s little more than a vague flicker. It’s a serious misstep, turning one of Disney’s most powerful and moving stories into something it’s often difficult to fully engage with.
Some characters still work. Pumbaa and Timon really stand out, largely because both of them have voices that are so expressive – and they’re both playing comic relief – that they can bridge the gap between what’s being said and what’s being shown. But while the voice performances across the board are good, once the thrill of the CGI visuals fades the characters lack of expression (coupled with unimaginative staging) drains the life out of the story and makes the musical numbers flat to watch.
If there’s any real joy to be taken from what often feels like just a proof-of-concept experiment for the technology that Disney will be using to totally replace human actors by the time their next cycle of remakes comes around, it’s that this film’s flaws feel all too human. If we really had to worry about software replacing actors, this would have been a perfect cinematic experience; instead it’s just another unnecessary remake, impressive at some points, puzzlingly inept in others.
The Lion King
Director: Jon Favreau
USA, 2019, 118 minutes
Release Date: 18 July 2019