Lion King, The (2019)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/19/19 13:24:26
I don’t know if McDonald’s is doing any sort of promotional tie-in with “The Lion King,” Disney’s hugely hyped remake of their 1994 animated blockbuster but if there is a Happy Meal involved, they should make the box in the shape of an accountant’s briefcase. After all, they are the only group of people who could conceivably come out of the film feeling genuinely happy and that is simply because of the enormous sums of money that their clients will presumably reap in the wake of its almost-certain box-office success. For everyone else, it will prove to be one of the most mystifying experiences that they will have at the multiplex this summer. Here is a film that has marshaled together a number of immensely talented people, given them a budget larger than the annual GNP of entire small nations and gotten nothing in return but a half-hearted and largely lifeless retread that fails to find its own footing and instead sticks so closely to the source material that it almost feels like the family entertainment equivalent of Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho.”Although the differences between the two versions are too minor to make much of a difference—a new song has been added to justify the presence of Beyonce Knowles-Carter in the voice cast and some scenes have been elongated for no other reason except to get the film up to a full two hours—a brief review is in order for those who haven’t encountered it before. As the film opens, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the lion king of Pride Rock, and wife Sarabi (Alfree Woodard), welcome the birth of their son, Simba (JD McCrary). The only one not celebrating is Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who resents both his brother and the newcomer who has replaced him in the line of ascension. Before long, Scar murders Mufasa, chases young Simba away by suggesting that he was responsible for his dad’s death and takes over the kingdom with the aid of a group of malicious hyenas. In self-imposed exile, Simba meets easygoing meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and chooses to stick with them, adopting their laid-back no-worries philosophy as he grows into adulthood (where the role is taken over by Donald Glover). Eventually, he runs into childhood friend and betrothed, Nala (Knowles-Carter), who informs him of what Scar has done to their land and, after the requisite night of the soul, decides to mane up and fight his uncle to reclaim his throne and save his home.
Truth be told, this amalgamation of “Hamlet,” the less-rockier corners of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin songbook and the Disney animated feature template that the studio had been sticking too since revitalizing the animation industry with “The Little Mermaid” a few years earlier (not to mention the manga series “Kimba the White Lion,” according to many animation experts) was not quite as great as its success might suggest, but it did clearly strike a chord with audiences young and old that continues to this day. When the time came attempting the seemingly impossible task of transferring the film to the Broadway stage, director Julie Taymor took a massive risk by employing a strikingly unique visual approach involving bold costumes and staging that helped to breathe new life into the familiar material. You would think, then, that anyone trying to do a new film version would want to find a similarly ambitious approach to the material to make it stand out—barring that, perhaps they could do a straight adaptation of the stage version that could make use of those designs. Instead, having made billions in recent years with a series of live-action remakes of their treasure trove of animated titles with deeply dubious results (this year alone has already seen the inexcusably terrible “Dumbo” and the utterly meh “Aladdin”), Disney and director Jon Favreau (who helped kick off this mini-trend with his remake of “The Jungle Book”) have elected to regress the formula even further by taking a story formerly told in lovely standard 2-D animation and presenting it in a completely photorealistic CGI manner in which everything from the characters to the blades of grass have been cooked up by an army of digital technicians. In other words, they have used the outer limits of modern technology to take an animated movie and turn it into. . . another animated movie.
From a purely technical perspective, the results are impressive, I suppose, but the more that I looked at them, the more I found myself wondering why they bothered in the first place. One of the reasons that people tell stories using animation is to be able to show things that could not be successfully presented in a straightforward live-action manner (at least not before the advent of CGI that turned nearly every film being made into an animated movie at some point or other). Yes, Favreau and his army of technicians have recreated the real world in mostly astonishing detail but by making the characters and the environment hew so closely to reality, they wind up constraining the material so that it never gets a chance to breathe on its own as it might have through the eyes of animators not bound by the laws of physics and evolution. After all, what is the point of spending so much time and effort making everything look and feel as realistic as possible if you are then going to immediately subvert that particular vision by having the animals talking and singing with an array of very familiar voices. Another problem with the ultra-realistic design of the characters is that, for all their efforts, the animators have not figured out how to put the kind of spark in their eyes that suggests a living being. The faces may be expressive but you never get a true sense that they are alive—they all feel like the fake animals that people were buying as a substitute for the ultra-rare real things in “Blade Runner.”As the center of a potential billion-dollar enterprise, this new version of “The Lion King” will presumably serve its purpose but, other than Disney stockholders, who is it for? Little kids, especially those who have not seen the original, might like it (though the photo-realistic approach might be a little too intense for some) but I have a sneaking suspicion that they might like the earlier film even better—it may not be quite as technologically advanced but the 2D animation has a warmth and charm to it that they might relate to better than what has been presented here. Those old enough to have seen the original when it first came out will probably be surprised by how closely it sticks to that film and if they do end up liking it, my guess is that most of that will be due to lingering affection and nostalgia for that one than for anything on display this time around. For everyone else, my guess is that it will not inspire anything more than shrugs—even the new Beyonce tune, while perfectly good for what it is, is hardly essential to the proceedings. As I noted earlier, the first “Lion King” was not a favorite of mine but I cannot deny its place in film history or the impact that it has had on other moviegoers over the years. By comparison, this new take will make a ton of money but in a few years, if I ask you to close your eyes and picture “The Lion King” in your mind, I would bet almost anything that your visions would be of a decidedly 2D nature.
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