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Film Review: The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Disney’s remake of The Lion King has a fundamental flaw at its core. In retooling and updating Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 1994 (mostly) hand-drawn animation classic – which, despite its flaws, was the closest thing to a bonafide masterpiece to come out of the 1990s Disney Renaissance – director Jon Favreau and his computer animation team choose, time and again, to hew firmly (even fanatically) to a visual aesthetic of photorealism. This approach has been supported by a soft-Orwellian twist in Disney’s imposing blanket marketing, which has insisted on labelling the remake as “live-action” to buttress its visual realism, an easily disproved claim considering that every character onscreen was crafted from computer pixels (perhaps some of the stunning landscape backgrounds were shot in Africa, but we’ll have to wait for behind-the-scenes material to confirm that).

On a surface level, this approach is a triumph; this version of The Lion King is so astoundingly true to life in its computer-generated rendering of a panoply of African wildlife and settings that it’s often like watching an especially handsomely shot nature documentary. But that’s also uncannily why it fails practically from the start. Because The Lion King presents impeccably-crafted, realistic-looking, reliably beautiful animal characters but then its narrative, themes, and emotional arcs require them to do and express things that they cannot physically do or visibly express. Not just talk or sing or dance in choreographed musical numbers or plot political coups or fall in love, but on a basic level communicate the believable human-like emotions that drive a story of legacy, self-doubt, tragic loss, redemption, and joy. This new Lion King simply does not work on this arguably most important level of filmmaking, making it a deeply strange and drained experience.

The Lion King was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted “original” story, although it drew liberally from biblical narratives and Shakespearean plots. To recap, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult lion) is the only son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only original cast member to reprise his voice role in this film), wise and benevolent leonine ruler of the plentiful Pridelands. Simba loves his father and learns lessons about the need for balance in the realm that he is told he will need when he is king. But his jealous and manipulative uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants the kingship for himself, and masterminds devious plots to endanger his naive, curious nephew Simba and bump off his elder brother Mufasa; during a spectacular wildebeest stampede caused by Scar’s hyena minions, he succeeds in killing the king and exiling the little lion prince, who is wracked with guilt at his father’s death and believed dead by his uncle, who rules over the kingdom and allows the hyenas to decimate its resources.

Falling in with a mismatched duo of animal misfits (warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Seth Rogen, and meerkat Timon, voiced by Billy Eichner) in an abundant edenic valley, Simba grows to adulthood while embracing a mantra of “hakuna matata”, blissfully unbothered by worries or responsibilities or burdens of the past. But a meeting with his childhood friend and once-betrothed lioness Nala (Shahadi Wright-Joseph as a cub, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) as well as a magical-spiritual urging by the stormcloud-vision ghost of his dead father convinces Simba to return to Pride Rock to fulfill his birthright destiny, defeat his evil uncle, and regain the kingship, thus restoring that vaunted interconnected balance known as “the circle of life”.

There’s some Jesus and Moses here, of course, and obvious borrowings from Hamlet, with the evil usurping uncle and doubting prince urged to reclaim his birthright by the ghost of the dead king. Less appreciated is the echo of the Bard’s Henry IV history plays in Simba’s hakuna matata middle-act peaced-out exile: he’s more than a bit Prince Hal, fleeing his royal father’s gospel of the duty and responsibility of power to swill ale (or in this case, devour grubs) and cavort in the Cheapside pubs with Falstaff and his merry band of ne’er-do-wells. Although Simba is not required by the text to firmly repudiate Timon and Pumbaa and their hedonistic abandon as Hal had to disown Falstaff to embrace the duties of kingship (“I know thee not, flatulent warthog”), he is required to turn his back on the spirit of hakuna matata in favour of his father’s ponderous circle of life wisdom and legacy of benevolent philosopher-king uprightness (a more nuanced thematic trajectory might have sought a syncretic synthesis of these two philosophies, but then it is a children’s cartoon in its didactic soul). It’s Shakespeare on safari, with a robust admiration for the divine right of kings that was more at home in Tudor propaganda theatre than in blockbuster modern corporate feature animation.

Speaking of propaganda, The Lion King is not devoid of political dimension beyond its soft-focus invocation of beneficent monarchism. If anything, Favreau’s remake amplifies and fleshes out the core contrast between the models of power presented in this animal kingdom. Mufasa’s measured focus on balance and moderation and sustainability is redolent of a sort of leonine neoliberalism (or at least neoliberalism’s benevolent, congratulatory self-image of its own baseline capitalist imperatives), while Scar’s regime represents unchecked acquisitive consumption for the powerful, upheld by the force of fear and the threat of violence. Scar is here given an initial hint of populist concern, expressing a sly opinion that Mufasa’s circle of life ideology and policies inevitably leave certain animal citizens (like the voracious hyenas) behind, while Mufasa’s predictions of a ruined habitat equilibrium if the carnivores were to overhunt are proven correct by the wasteland that results when Scar Makes the Pridelands Great Again. Simba, interestingly, subscribes in his exile to a kinder version of self-centered individualism that hews closer to Scar’s take-what-you-want views, but of course becomes the heir to his father’s legacy, the circle of life ideological superstructure.

The Lion King opens in both its version with the powerfully scene-setting “Circle of Life” sequence, which is for my money one of the most iconic opening scenes in the movies. The vividly-coloured scenes of flora and fauna meeting the rising sun interwoven with South African composer Lebo M.’s Zulu phrases and group vocal rhythms lead on to the epic introduction of the lion royal family and their newborn cub Simba at Pride Rock. It brilliantly sets a mood, a visual tone, the setting and principals of the story, and the contours of its coming emotional journey in less than four masterful, sonically and visually memorable minutes. When the hard-stop drum beat cuts to the title card at the song’s end, the audience is not merely primed for what is to come, they are veritably pumped.

Although Favreau’s “live-action” remake recreates the original sequence practically shot-for-shot and the composition and aural/visual interplay remains strong enough for the scene to still achieve most of its affect, his “Circle of Life” sequence demonstrates the diminishing differences that the photorealistic imperative will wreak on The Lion King. The realistic lighting and colours pop less than the cartoon vividness of the original’s shots of the savannah (though the sense of depth is more pronounced this time), and the realistic appearance and facial animation of the animal characters flattens their emotional expressiveness, leaving the audience to fill in emotional import themselves. The ill effects of this mania for realism are microcosmically embodied in what ought to be the sequence’s pinnacle moment: ceremonial shaman baboon Rafiki (John Kani) striding to the edge of Pride Rock and thrusting the cub-prince Simba above his future capering animal subjects as the clouds break and a beam of sunlight shines upon the baby lion like a holy benediction. For Favreau’s version, it seems clear that some biologist advisor to the production insisted that baboons don’t actually stand that way, and so Rafiki sits down at the end of the rock and waves the cub, with its blank feline look that communicates no emotion, around a bit.

This is but a small moment, but it’s an early object lesson in how the realism-mania of the 2019 Lion King will turn it into a pretty but ultimately empty experience. Following “Circle of Life” with an interminable scene of the camera following a mouse along some rocks that leads to Scar’s introduction (the 2019 Lion King is 30 minutes longer than the 1994 Lion King, and it feels like all 30 of those minutes are in this scene), we quickly get the idea. Favreau is going to repeat the original film beat-for-beat, with so much focus on making it look as good as possible that the drama, fun, and feelings will always suffer.

The Lion King‘s musical sequences surely suffer most. The animation of the animal characters’ speech and singing is not nearly as odd and distracting as their dead-eyed facial paralysis, but there is of course nothing “natural” about detailed real-seeming African animals suddenly breaking into song, let alone complexly choreographed earworm showstoppers in vibrant, evocative technicolour incorporating Bubsy Berkeley homages and dark invocations of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. But the catchy songs by Elton John and Tim Rice (I’m no Broadway devotee, and thus fancy that the multi-million-selling pop star composer injects the superior hooks) are not only favourites with fans but essential to the plot and themes of The Lion King. They kind of have to be there, and cannot either be highly minimized (as in Favreau’s dress-reheasal CG remake of The Jungle Book) or removed entirely (as has been promised for Disney’s coming Mulan remake, which from the looks of its first trailer might just end up being the only one of these live-action rehashes with a compelling artistic reason to exist).

So the songs are here, but they are often truncated and always rendered dull and inert by the realism-mania. As Emily Todd VanDerWerff discusses in her superb Vox article on the film’s handcuffing obsession with realism and how that reflects on a wider, likely temporary movement in pop culture, Simba’s brassy and immature fantasy-projection number “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from the 1994 film imparted with multichromatic overconfidence, clever editing, and film-history referentiality how the spoiled princeling Simba was brassy and immature, and how those qualities would soon lead him into imminent danger among the hyenas of the spooky elephant graveyard. In the 2019 film, Simba and Nala caper blankly around the drinking creatures at the watering hole to evade the fussy hornbill herald/advisor Zazu (John Oliver) assigned by Mufasa to mind them (there is a lot of Zazu in this movie, especially in the early stages, so you’d better hope that you like Oliver’s spluterring act). Scar’s diabolical musical exposition of his foreboding coup d’état plot, “Be Prepared”, is no longer an Expressionist vamping villain showpiece underscored by the imagery of fascism and corpse-light colours, because that wouldn’t “make sense”; instead, he climbs some rocks in the moonlight while Ejiofor recites some of the key expository lyrics slam-poetry-style.

Despite the viral tweet with a side-by-side comparison of the original and remake’s animations for trademark fun number “Hakuna Matata” that reflects poorly on the new version, this musical sequence works a little better in its early stages, where the bursting colour of Timon and Pumbaa’s lush valley home reflects the sunny, carefree positivity of the song. In fact, generally speaking, the comedy of the 2019 Lion King lands better than its drama (though it would still be a stretch to label the movie as a whole as “funny”). Jon Favreau came out of comedy filmmaking (think Swingers and the first Iron Man), of course, and is a bit more at home with its application here, while the timing and delivery of his voice-acting cast can sell jokes better than it can sell the weightier moments (although a bickering pair of hyenas voiced by big comedic talents Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André simply repeat the same lame joke about personal space). For all of the ways that this “live-action” Lion King updates its appearance and beats for the realism-mania (Rafiki no longer magically realizes that Simba is still alive, but catches a few wisps of his fur that travel, circle-of-life-style, back to the Pridelands), it chooses to preserve its ’90s-vintage New York archetype comic relief of a snarky gay musical-theatre-enthusiast meerkat and a jolly, fart-prone warthog (there’s a lot of fart jokes, but the original went in for those, too).

In keeping the songs, however, Favreau’s The Lion King also frequently matches strong singers with weak ones: Eichner is a fine vocalist, as demonstrated on “Hakuna Matata” and a brief snatch of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which is only in the movie because people would certainly expect it to be; at least original composer Solomon Linda’s daughters might see some more residuals from it), but Seth Rogen isn’t a singer of any stripe (also, eerily, Pumbaa somehow simultaneously looks like a realistic warthog and like Seth Rogen). Glover, meanwhile, is quite musical, but obviously Queen B’s imposing voice flattens his in their duet moments in love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, while also headlining a big new song called “Spirit” to take a swing at the Best Original Song Oscar (I also admit to being a mild fan of her performance as Nala, her clipped Texan phrase endings giving Simba’s mating interest a whiff of feminist attitude). Although Aladdin, with its star turn from Robin Williams’ Genie, was the true turning point for big-name voice casting in feature animation, the original Lion King went down that road some distance too, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, and Whoopi Goldberg among its vocal talents. But this remake intermittently demonstrates why more careful casting by ability can trump star-chasing.

So some of Favreau’s The Lion King lighter elements sort of succeed, and some of the voice actors do good work. The score, mostly rehashed from Hans Zimmer’s original work for the 1994 film, is solid (recognizable musical themes, how we missed you in the blockbuster realm), and yes, the visuals are often stunningly beautiful as well as technically impressive. But how much does any of this matter when the 2019 Lion King cannot involve us emotionally in its characters or their dramatic arcs? Time and again, Favreau cuts to his feline protagonist or supporting lions for reaction shots and the look on their faces is inscrutably feline.

More than once, in fact, the lions are so realistic that you can’t tell them apart, because real lions do look almost completely the same. A panning shot that passes by Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfree Woodard) and the rest of lionesses makes them looks like a clutch of prefabricated robots (it doesn’t help that the film’s realism-mania does not, for likely reasons of children’s audience sensitivity, extend to showing the lionesses hunt as in the wild, visually implying that they merely laze about while the males patrol, even though dialogue states otherwise). When a lioness sneaks away from Pride Rock at night in defiance of Scar’s tyranny, it’s impossible to tell if it’s the headstrong Nala or the resisting Sarabi, both of whom were given reasons to do so in the previous scene (dialogue at the end of the scene reveals it to be Nala, but I defy a fresh viewer to figure it out before that point). Even during the climactic battle between Simba and Scar with the fate of the Pridelands at stake, the two antagonists are often indistinguishable one from the other as they fight to the death, as cardinal a sin of dramatic tension as it is possible to commit.

In expending so much time and effort and expense to make every animal in his film look completely believable and entirely realistic, Favreau cuts us out of the story’s swells of sentiment in a way that no determined expenditure of musical cues or visual language can quite overcome. Every time this film wants us to feel something, we are confronted with an impeccable fascimile of a living thing that does not feel or express that feeling in the way that we do, and the moment falls flat. This is especially noticeable in the horrid misfire of the wildebeest stampede sequence. A visual, technical, dramatic, and emotional showpiece scene in the 1994 animated film, the sequence in which Scar betrays and murders Mufasa during a thunderous stampede of panicked wildebeest in a canyon while Simba watches was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted parental-death traumatic moment, the killing of Bambi’s mother for a different generation, and carrying an emotional vitality in-narrative that Bambi did not possess in the same way.

The cartoon exagerrations of traditional animation imbued this scene with much of its power in 1994: how Simba’s ears sink and his mouth falls open in the zoom-in shot as the wildebeest crest the canyon’s edge, the furrows of concern shown by Mufasa, Scar, and even Zazu as they rush to the cub’s aid, Mufasa’s widening eyes as Scar’s treachery becomes clear, and above all the visionary blocking and editing of the moment that Simba sees his father fall to his death: cutting from Mufasa’s plumetting form and zooming out rapidly from Simba’s eyes as he cries out in anguish at this life-altering event. These drawn facial reactions and camera moves don’t fit in with the realism-mania of Favreau’s The Lion King, so they are not included, and what should be the film’s most powerful scene is weirdly soulless and even faintly laughable.

Alongside The Lion King‘s realism-mania is the culture of weaponized nostalgia that undergirds all of Disney’s “live-action” remakes of its Renaissance classics. But in banking on audiences’ fond memories of previous versions of these movies, cultural creators like Disney also must contend with the possibility that those fond memories will be threatened by their attempts to recapture those nostalgic feelings for the original article, or alternately that those fond memories are not threatened at all, being based in elements of quality in the original article that the rehashed version does not re-create, or indeed is unable to re-create by dint of artistic and/or technical choices in how to adapt the property. Disney’s Star Wars films have certainly had to contend with the vocal opposition of (a noisy minority of) fans outright offended by narrative and thematic choices taken with regards to beloved characters.

But for me, the 2019 Lion King has a different and much more fundamental issue, especially because this new film (its screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson, but is heavily based on and indebted to the original film’s script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton) does not alter the major or even many of the minor elements if its narrative or character arcs in any way. My regard for the 1994 Lion King is based more in nostalgic sentiment than continued contemporary familiarity; it’s been decades since I’ve seen it, and even in watching clips for this review, its cartoonish qualities can be slightly grating. But with the same story and themes in place, is it simply nostalgic attachment and the subsequent disillusioning passage of time that makes this new Lion King seem so empty? Or is the chosen mode of visual representation draining that story and those themes of their impact, which they ought to be robust enough to retain regardless of the age or maturity of the audience?

It’s hard for me to deny that the latter is true, and therefore that marks the photorealistic imperative of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King as a failure. That this failure is entirely a matter of purposeful design is one of the most incredible and frustrating things about the film. It seems amazing that no one involved in the production who was able to influence its direction raised the alarm about the film’s dead-eye lions and the problems for emotional engagement that they inevitably portended; perhaps they did, and were ignored or outvoted. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste or perspective, and millions will be swept up in the undeniably gorgeous and impressive graphical achievements of the computer special effects team and identify with the struggles of Simba and the other characters despite the visual roadblocks erected in the way of such identification. Looking like a nature documentary need not preclude emotional involvement, and nature documentaries often jury-rig storylines to compel such involvement in the inherently non-narrative processes of the natural world (no chase scene in this film is anywhere near as white-knuckle exciting as the Planet Earth II clip of an iguana evading dozens of snakes, mind you). Despite my own inability to engage with it, I nonetheless expect this version of the The Lion King, live-action or computer-animated or whatever else you want to label it, to be a massive box-office success for a film studio already flush with such successes. In Hollywood in this era of Disney hegemony, that is the true circle of life.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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