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The Lion King
First run Theater cinema

The Lion King, the latest delivery from Disney’s creatively bankrupt pipeline of live-action remakes of their classic animated properties, isn’t live-action at all, but it sure as hell is a remake. Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens) follows up his prior Disney reimagining, the not entirely successful but still somewhat interesting The Jungle Book  (2016), with this virtually shot-for-shot remake of the traditionally animated original, which was released in 1994 and became Disney’s biggest box office hit of all time. This new Lion King is an entirely computer generated film that strives for, and achieves, photorealism in all kinds of fascinating ways except for one critical aspect that makes any kind of realism impossible: the animals talk, sing, and emote like human beings.

The new movie uses the ’94 film like a previsualization animatic to such an extent it comes off as shameless appropriation rather than nostalgic homage. I very much doubt that fans of the original will delight at seeing their favorite scenes recreated in a way that renders them more “real looking” yet far less compelling. I’ll also wager that, regardless of how much this picture rakes in during its release, it will not live on in the hearts and imaginations of today’s kids the way the first version did for young audiences in the mid-‘90s. First of all, even if this is your first or second Lion King, you'll feel unmoved by the all-star voice cast. The original Lion King featured some excellent casting choices: James Earl Jones as Mufasa, the king of the African Pride Lands; Jeremy Irons as his craven, scheming younger brother Scar; Robert Guillaume as the wise old baboon medicine man Rafiki, and Rowan Atkinson as Zazu, a hornbill who serves as Mufasa’s majordomo. However, for the main character of Simba, the titular Lion King, the original filmmakers chose Matthew Broderick, a movie star with one of the least African sounding voices in the entire history of acting. One of the ‘94 version’s biggest weaknesses is that the adult Simba sounds like the protagonist of a Neil Simon play.

For this new movie, Donald Glover takes on the role of Simba. Best known for his TV work in shows like 30 Rock, Community, and Atlanta, and as the musician and performer Childish Gambino, Glover would seem a far better choice for the role than someone like Broderick. But, apart from not sounding he’s never left the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Glover brings nothing distinctive to the part. James Earl Jones returns to play Mufasa again, and I almost wonder if they just used the same tracks from 1994 since his lines are virtually the same. The great Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Children of Men, 12 Years a Slave) is surprisingly bland as Scar (with a singing voice almost as thin as Jeremy Irons’). The South African actor, director, and playwright John Kani is fine as Rafiki. Comedian and political commentator John Oliver is wearisome as Zazu. And pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is shockingly underwhelming as Nala, Simba's childhood best friend and adult love interest.

But the most egregious casting is Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon, the slow-witted warthog and quick-witted meerkat who befriend Simba after he runs away from home. These are arguably the best-remembered characters from the original film, where Broadway veterans Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane provided the voices. Their distinctive energy gave the ‘94 picture a delightful boost in its second act; whereas when Rogen and Eichner enter this new version, it drags the energy down. Rogen’s voice is so distinctive I don’t see how anyone over the age of fourteen can watch this movie without having a mental image of the two actors in the recording studio rather than seeing the characters. And since Rogen can’t sing at all (he can’t even speak-sing) the picture’s one memorable number "Hakuna Matata" becomes as forgettable as all the other tracks.

Yes, the songs of The Lion King by Elton John and Tim Rice (who both returned to work on this new production), are some of the most middling in the Disney songbook. You might hope that having Beyoncé aboard this time to perform the movie’s love theme, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” might breathe some life into that banal tune, but those hopes are not fulfilled, and the song is as uninspiring as ever. Composer Hans Zimmer also returns to slightly rework his original score, which was one of his best and helped the ’94 picture achieve a necessary level of gravitas.

Watching this remake does remind you what a tightly written film the original Lion King is. Often for me, when seeing a fetishistic remake, a stage version of a movie, or live performances by a sketch comedy group I know well, I get antsy because I anticipate what’s coming and everything seems to play too slowly. Such is not the case here. The new Lion King zips along as efficiently as the old one, with scenes that feel neither rushed nor idle. But just like the ’94 film and the wildly successful stage adaptation by Julie Taymor, nothing in the movie is as impressive or compelling as the opening sequence, in which all the animals gather at the giant Pride Rock to witness the presentation of baby Simba—all set to Zimmer’s African influenced production of a decent enough song from John and Rice, “The Circle of Life.” 

It’s shocking that the Screenwriter’s Guild would grant Jeff Nathanson (Rush Hour 2, Catch Me If You Can, Tower Heist) a screenplay credit on this movie since it is basically just the script of the ’94 film with the eight funniest lines removed. Original screenwriters Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton do get “Based On” credit here, but come on, folks----this screenplay is as much of a Xerox as the shot list. Worse, there are elements of the script that should have been revised for the new film. The Lion King has themes and plot points that simply don’t work as effectively in a more realistic version—nor do they play as well in today’s culture as they did twenty-five years earlier. In 2019, a movie about a patriarchal society that can only function when the one true, unelected monarch returns just seems out of step with the times. In 1994, watching the animated Scar and his gang of hyenas oppressing the small group of female lions seemed credible. Watching this version, where the scrawny photorealistic Scar stands on Pride Rock surrounded by a dozen powerful-looking photorealistic lionesses (one voiced by Alfre Woodard and one by Beyoncé, for goodness sake!), I couldn’t help put myself in the mind of a little kid watching this who might turn to her parent and say, “Mommy, why don’t they just knock him off that ledge?”

While I’ve never much cared for any of the movies Favreau has directed, I think he’s an interesting filmmaker nonetheless. Despite not taking the opportunity to do more with this story than give it an academic, Gus-Van-Sant-Psycho treatment, his approach to digital filmmaking is intriguing. Instead of working with motion-capture, like James Cameron or other CGI obsessed directors, Favreau labored to create a digital world that behaves entirely like the analogue world. As with The Jungle Book, he and his team built a virtual landscape for The Lion King in which they rendered not only the animal characters and African settings but also built digital versions of all the traditional tools used to make live-action movies. He not only employs virtual cameras but also virtual dollies, cranes, drones, lights, reflectors, flags, and the full complement of gear you would find in a Hollywood sound stage. He hired the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural) to help the CGI not just look like real photography, but to feel like actual cinematography too. 

Favreau and Deschanel trained their crew of technicians how to program all this virtual gear to obey the laws of physics and behave like real-world equipment. Viewers can subconsciously feel the human operators behind the pans, dolly moves, and Steadicam shots, because actual human operators are manipulating these tools in much the same way they would real-world equipment. And the light from specific digitally created instruments illuminates faces and surfaces in the exact same way the real-world versions of these same lights do.

Similarly, Favreau covers and edits his scenes in the manner of a live-action director rather than the way an animator or computer programmer would. For example, when the animals fight, it’s cut together the way you’d expect to see a fight scene edited in a nature documentary or a fictional wildlife picture made with trained critters. The action is made up of quick cuts that sometimes occur not at the ideal moment, but when an animal disappears from frame or moves its head or paw in an unexpected way that, when cut a certain way, looks menacing or defencive. Animation directors have the ability to design shots in which everything unfolds in the exact way they envision in their mind, which is one of the unique things about the medium. In striving for photorealism, Favreau is just as concerned with the authenticity of the tools used to capture moving images (or viewer’s subconscious familiarity with what these tools produce) as he is with the images themselves.

A massive effort was spent to make this movie look as “real” as possible, but since animals don’t have mouths that can articulate words, nearly every single shot has something about it that looks profoundly unreal. Plus, I’m still not clear why anyone wants realism in their stories about anthropomorphized animals experiencing human emotions, adventures, and dramas. Movies like The Lion King are myths that use metaphor and symbolism to convey timeless themes. This type of storytelling is best suited to the exaggerated conditions of magical fantasy, whether depicted through animation or stylized live-action. The more realistic films like this try to be, the more they miss the point of what their stories are actually about.  

Twitter Capsule:
Favreau works hard to create a CGI remake of the Disney animated classic that looks and feels photorealistic, but these efforts only result in a bland version of the movie that lacks real charm, humor, or thematic resonance.  

Directed by Jon Favreau
Produced by Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver, and Karen Gilchrist

Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson
Based on the film written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton

With: the voices of Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Amy Sedaris, Chance the Rapper, Josh McCrary, Phil LaMarr, and J. Lee

Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Editing: Mark Livolsi and Adam Gerstel
Music: Hans Zimmer

Runtime: 118 min
Release Date: 19 July 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1