Lion King, The (2019)Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 07/18/19 00:44:15
(Worth A Look)
Let us immediately address the elephant on the room. A beat-by-beat, shot-by-shot photo realistic remake of “The Lion King” is as unnecessary as Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” More so, given that Disney released an improved version of the 1991 animation classic on IMAX on 2002, followed by an equally successful 3D release on 2011. And, let us not forget that after being tested at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre in 1997, the daring theater adaptation directed by Julie Taymor debuted later that year on Broadway where it went on to win more than a dozen Tonys and is still going strong not only there but around the world. Talk about milking a cash cow. Then there is Disney’s financially successful strategy of cannibalizing its back catalogue with live action or photorealistic versions of its entire back catalogue (the delightful “Zootopia” may actually be the last original films to come out of their animation studios). This year alone has seen back to back remakes of “Dumbo” and “Aladdin.” And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this new version of “The Lion King.” Not only is it as entertaining and emotional as the original film directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Director Jon Favreau and scriptwriter Jeff Nathanson have elevated the material by tapping into and drawing out the original’s Shakespearean and mythical undertones.The story is basically the same: Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising the original role) rules over a pride of lions that include his jealous and rather creepy looking brother Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor), more Richard III than the handsomely sly and more traditionally villainous original version. As the film opens, Simba, Mufasa’s only son, is presented to the Savannah’s inhabitants. After two failed attempts on Simba’s life, Scar strikes a gruesome alliance with a pack of exiled hyenas. After killing his brother during an antelope stampede, Scar convinces the future heir to the throne that he’s responsible for his father’s death and a guilt-ridden Simba runs away. Dehydrated and hungry, Simba is about to turn into carrion when he is rescued by the Stan and Ollie-like duo of warthog Pumba (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). Through them, Simba embraces an alternative lifestyle, the Savannah equivalent of going vegan, while turning his back to the past and his own guilt.
That past comes roaring back years later in the form of best friend and future wife Nala (Beyoncé) who, after believing he was dead, literally stumbles upon the now grown Simba (voiced by Donald Glover). Scar’s reign over the Savannah has led to arid, deforested lands and a rapidly decreasing food stock (this version of “The Lion King” has no qualms about addressing these predators’ true nature). Simba refuses to return and assume his rightful place to the throne, hakuna matata and all that and…well, you know the rest.
Critics have attacked the characters’ lack of expression in their advance reviews. I suspect that we have become so used to Disney’s and Pixar’s (or for that matter Studio Ghibli’s) anthropomorphization of the animal kingdom that we can’t quite wrap our heads around the photorealistic depiction of these characters (although, come on, when was the last time you saw a lion or lioness smile at you? And if they did, aren’t you glad you were not within their paws’ reach?) I was, frankly, in awe: the landscapes, the environment, the characters, every single detail may have been digitally built and computer generated but I actually thought I was there, so realistic, so immersive was this experience. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel has, like Roger Deakins before him in similar digital ventures, taken full advantage of this technology to create a distinctive look for the film, one where landscapes are drenched with sunlight and the night skies look majestic while squeezing malignancy and dread from every shadow and dark corner.
This same photorealism draws attention to and heightens the darker aspects of Irene Mecchi’s, Jonathan Roberts’ and Linda Woolverton’s original script. The “Circle of Life” may be a beautiful, catchy, inspiring song about balance but Favreau and Nathanson drive home the song’s themes about what happens when that balance, and the resources behind it, are mismanaged. Let’s face it: that’s what Scar and his cadre of hyenas do to Mufasa’s kingdom; their behavior is no different than that of every single authoritarian figure around the world. And in stressing young Simba’s impatience and impulsiveness, Favreau and Nathanson magnify the tale’s tragedy and the hero’s journey Simba is about to embark. But they also missed a golden opportunity: by not expanding on his learning curve, by not taking full advantage of the narrative and dramatic potential of that journey, by dismissing it with the familiar dissolve from the young Simba and his friends to the teen Simba and his friends, they deprived this version of a meatier and juicier take on the story. One that could have turned this version of “The Lion King” into a true bildungsroman.
The voice cast is superb. Ejiofor has transformed Scar from a scene-stealing and dangerous prima donna into a conniving and serpentine villain, one whose whispers are as lethal as his claws, more Iago than moustache-twirling thug. As Pumba and Timon, Rogen and Eichner bring levity to the (although Eichner comes this close to stealing the show away from Rogen). There is undeniable chemistry here, more than between Glover’s Simba and Beyoncé’s Nala. Florence Kazumba shines as chief hyena Shenzi: she brings new nuances to her character. There is a viciousness, a ruthlessness, a hunger in her performance that exemplifies the dog-eat-dog world of Scar’s rule.This version of “The Lion King” is neither an aberration nor a major crime against the cinematic arts (that honor still belongs to Ted Turner’s attempts to colorize every single classic black and white film). Yes, it is symptomatic of the IP, franchise-driven studio culture that has swallowed whole most of your local multiplex. But “The Lion King” is a film that strives to entertain and add new dimensions to a familiar story. It is also, in the way it uses this new technology to present an accurate and tactile representation of the world we live in, a film that opens the door for a more robust, considered conversation of the role this photorealist technology will have in our lives in this post-truth world. Alas, there is no room for such discussions in a critical environment ruled by the zeal to be the first to publish a movie review more than a week before the film’s actual opening.
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