FilmSpace: The Lion King

Film critic Scott Wilson reviews another in a long line of Disney remakes, which in the case of The Lion King has become a terrible affront to audiences. 

The Lion King – ★☆☆☆☆

When Oasis appeared on the scene, fuelled by a love of The Beatles, they didn’t release a beat-by-beat cover version of The White Album. Why would they? Any attempt to retell songs so fully formed would fall short no matter what. Instead, Oasis emulated The Beatles’ winning formula and added to the world they had built.

Essentially, Oasis are to The Beatles what the straight-to-VHS The Lion King 2 (underrated) is to 1994’s animated original. This Lion King, 2019’s live-action remake by Jon Favreau, who also helmed the live-action Jungle Book three years ago (neither of which contain any live-action apart from the latter’s Mowgli played by young Neel Sethi), is what would have happened if Oasis released Beatles cover songs. There are technical upgrades across the board, but the spirit of the original can never be recaptured when it dares so little to say anything else. For a majority of its run time, it’s a carbon copy of a classic film that cannot be improved on. It’s a cover film.

Everyone is familiar with the story. Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising the role), ruling over the Pride Lands, tries to prepare his young son Simba (JD McCrary as a cub; Donald Glover as an adult) for when the time comes to take his father’s place. Tragedy strikes, Simba flees, and he has to discover who he is again, with the help of Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph of the Broadway cast as a cub; Beyonce as an adult), Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen).

No one does a bad job, but with the magic gone from everything around them, their words alone aren’t enough to inject life into the film. Having Beyonce and Donald Glover lead any feature is a dream come true, and yet their performances are totally unremarkable, as pedestrian as any other throwaway voice acting gig. Rogen and Eichner riff off each other in a very 2019 way, akin to the Saturday Night Live formula of humour that’s dominated big-budget American comedies for years now. Apart from one hilarious gag referencing another Disney film, all of their banter falls flat.

It is a reminder of just how good 1994’s classic is, and that for cinema to be worth our time, it must believe in a purpose greater than an easy attempt at filling Disney’s bank account.

The original film is so familiar to so many people that, by halfway through, an acceptance sets in, knowing this 2019 version is an inferior copy. Next up is Can You Feel the Love Tonight – inexplicably set during the day time – yet it’s lesser. Then it’s this, then it’s that, and it’s always lesser. The film works most successfully when reminding you of how much of a timeless classic the 1994 film is.

One person who understands this is Hans Zimmer. Returning with his rousing score, the familiar motifs and infectious themes are all here, barely changed. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and get paid twice for the same thing.

To its credit, the animation is ground-breaking. In the right place, these technical feats are going to amplify the possibilities of storytelling, pushing the boundaries of what has been possible up until now. Manes look tangible, landscapes look photorealistic, green grasses look lush and alive. It’s a visual feast of virtuoso design, everyone involved has created something awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

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No amount of technical flourish can polish up a pointless effort though. These lions look real, but real lions don’t emote how young Simba did peering over the gorge in 1994. Viewers are left with the Kuleshov effect, having to work to assign emotion to these realistic creatures who can’t smile, cry, show shock or anger. When before it was easy to relate to these characters, now they’re too lifelike to display human characteristics. Just because modern animation looks more real does not mean it’s better for storytelling purposes. Toy Story 4 just made us relate to a hand-made anthropomorphic spork; none of these lions inspire anything on the level of Forky.

So, then, what is The Lion King if not just a display of CGI wizardry? Nothing new is said, mostly it’s a shot-for-shot retelling, and where changes have been made they’re profoundly worse - Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is old and pathetic where once he had flamboyance and a deep-seated rage. Be Prepared is turned into a spoken-word, tuneless throwaway, perhaps a rare moment of acknowledging that the original is too high a bar to clear.

Many terrible films can at least claim to aim for something and fail. On occasion, they put out the wrong message and become problematic. But at the very least, they tried, they said something. The Lion King is without justification. It is vapid and empty, lifeless and a waste of time. It is a reminder of just how good 1994’s classic is, and that for cinema to be worth our time, it must believe in a purpose greater than an easy attempt at filling Disney’s bank account. Bad films suck, but pointless films are an affront to why we go to the cinema – to escape, to imagine, to wonder. We are all capable of dreaming bigger than a copycat. So we should.

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