With the announcement over the weekend of Disney’s upcoming Marvel slate, it’s a good time to be a fan of the House of Mouse’s output. The studio has been absolutely dominating the blockbuster landscape, not only with superheroes, but also with its live-action remakes of animated classics. Dumbo and Aladdin have both proved monster hits so far this year, but it’s easy to imagine them both being dwarfed by newest rehash The Lion King, which brings the iconic 1994 film to life in photoreal style.
This is arguably not a live-action remake at all, with director Jon Favreau rendering the world of Pride Rock entirely via CGI, just as he did with everything other than Mowgli in his excellent 2016 reimagining of The Jungle Book. The story as we all know it is just as it ever was with leonine prince Simba – played by young singer JD McCrary and then by actor and hip-hop star Donald Glover – exiled from his home by his malevolent uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) following the tragic death of his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones).
It’s worth noting, before delving into the myriad flaws of this film, that its visual ambition and flair cannot be doubted even for a second. The scenery of the African savanna is rendered with incredible, natural beauty and it’s remarkable how far the ability of animation to convey realistic fur, plants and water has progressed in the last few years alone. At times, though, this version of The Lion King is so in love with its own visual splendour that it forgets it’s supposed to be telling a story. One scene seems to follow a tuft of lion fur for hours, almost solely as an excuse to show off how pretty the landscapes are.
There’s no denying that The Lion King, moreso than The Jungle Book, tumbles headlong into the uncanny valley. It’s almost impossible to buy into the performances, however convincingly the animal mouths move, and it constantly feels as if these are actors providing a voiceover from a booth in California, which obviously is what they are. I half expected a marmot to pop up yelling the name Alan over and over. The first act, which ostensibly is where much of the movie’s heart dwells, is dogged by this problem, making it difficult to buy into any of the emotion.
As a result, Lion King 2019 is basically treading water until the arrival of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). These two inject an energy and a vigour into the movie that just isn’t there when it’s walking through the necessary steps of the well-known story. Their segment of the original movie is fairly loose and freewheeling anyway and so it allows the Favreau version to carve its own path, even if only for a few minutes. Eichner and Rogen are perfectly cast, with each bringing an organic, improvised feel to their dialogue that is entirely absent elsewhere.
The unfortunate side effect of the pivot to realism is that there’s a more dangerous, aggressive edge to this version of the story that is far from in keeping with the tone of the original. Scenes in which real-looking lion cubs are menaced by real-looking hyenas are difficult to watch, which sits awkwardly with the fact the hyenas still get similar, comedic dialogue to the animation.
This also comes through clearly in the characterisation of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar, which proves to be a more overtly serious, sinister take on the villain, in comparison to Jeremy Irons’ hissable, theatrical performance. Ejiofor’s stately, booming rendition of ‘Be Prepared’ will be divisive as it’s more spoken than sung, but it’s consistent with the way this Scar is crafted, even if it often feels like he’s from a different, edgier film than the one in which talking animals lark about and sing to each other.
With all of that said, though, this is still The Lion King, and that counts for something. The songs are great, the story is engaging and the characters are a joy to be around once the initial disgust reflex of the uncanny effect wears off. As with many of the other Disney remakes, and particularly the wholly inoffensive likes of Beauty and the Beast, this is a movie that doesn’t need to exist, but it’s just as unnecessary to be angry that it does.
Dir: Jon Favreau
Scr: Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, JD McCrary, Alfre Woodard, Florence Kasumba
Prd: Jon Favreau, Karen Gilchrist, Jeffrey Silver
DOP: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Hans Zimmer
Run time: 118 mins
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