Movie Review: The Lion King

In 1994, the animators working on The Lion King thought that they were toiling in obscurity on a movie that no one was going to see. They lived in jealousy of the Pocahontas crew, who they thought were on to the big thing. The Lion King, of course, went on to become a massive hit, breaking VHS sales records and making literally billions of dollars through ancillary properties. Pocahontas was considerably less successful, although at least two of its songs are all time greats in the Disney canon.

The Lion King is the third and final remake that Disney is releasing in 2019, and it is easily the worst. Where Dumbo was a variation on a theme and Aladdin was an expansion that staked its own place on the continuum, The Lion King is a soulless recreation with very little new to offer and so much to take away. People are often far too quick to label a studio, or an industry in general, as creatively bankrupt. The Lion King is not the example you would use to dispel that notion.

Pride Rock is ruled over by lion Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who teaches his son Simba (JD McCrary, Little) what it means to be king. But Simba’s Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sherlock Gnomes) has designs on the throne, and Simba exiles himself from Pride Rock and befriends meerkat and warthog team Timon (Billy Eichner, TV’s Friends From College) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen, Long Shot). Now an adult, Simba (Donald Glover, TV’s Atlanta) must face his bravery and responsibility to reclaim his birthright.

In 1994, The Lion King set benchmarks that no one has really tried to surpass since. The Circle of Life sequence that opens the film is entirely unrivalled in animation 25 years later. And so Jon Favreau (TV’s The Chef Show) tries to bring it back, shot for shot, in the inexplicable aesthetic that was chosen for this movie. The Lion King is a pseudo-live action film, but realistically it is an animated film made with special-effects techniques instead of animation finesse. It’s not that the lions skirt the uncanny valley, but rather that they can’t carry any of the weight of the material. 

The Circle of Life is indicative of everything that is to come: an overly literal film which adheres so closely to the facts of a lion’s pride that it doesn’t concede anything to the cinematic form. Multiple shots are cribbed directly from the original film, ignoring that in 1994 colour and expression were used to create an emotional tone and warmth. The Lion King is exceedingly dull to look at, which is inexcusable in an age where actual nature documentaries boast vibrancy and narrative clarity. Earth tones don’t pop in The Lion King, flattening the emotion further than the already immobile faces of the characters.

The deficiencies are made clearest in the musical sequences, for which Favreau refuses to allow abstraction. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is shot with the theory that, if the animals can’t dance, the way to make it a spectacle is to just add more and more animals until you can’t see Simba and Nala any more. The way that “Be Prepared”, famous for its Nazi imagery, is neutered suggests that it would have been better off removed from the film altogether. In “decamping” Scar, writer Jeff Nathanson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) has removed all of his personality while casually investing overt heterosexual desire in the character. Without “Be Prepared” in any helpful capacity, Scar doesn’t have a moment, and there’s only so much that Ejiofor can to invest him with villainy when the animation does nothing to help.

The songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, remain as they always were. There is a new song, “Spirit”, cowritten by Beyoncé (who serves double duty as Nala, Simba’s betrothed), a weightless piece that dies on the screen in a place where Lebo M’s “He Lives In You” from the Broadway production (which shows up in the end credits) would have made more sense. Still, the execution is lacking, and Beyoncé and Donald Glover’s duet on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is garbled at best; on screen, we’re never given reason to believe that there’s romance going on at all.

The Lion King improves marginally when Timon and Pumbaa appear, as Eichner and Rogen’s performances are the only two in the film that meld with the action on screen. Up to that point the entire project has felt like voice over narration rather than dialogue; Eichner and Rogen bring life to the movie, and some of the film’s only original scripting. Some of the changes are for the worse, and most of them are unspeakably meta, but at least they’re something to latch on to that isn’t an instant cause for despair.

Because despair is the nature of The Lion King in 2019. Nathanson’s script is paradoxically slavish to the original with none of the flavour; once Simba is an adult, Glover brings vulnerability to the role yet all of the lines that would allow him texture and depth are stripped away. In the primary days of cel based animation, each character would have a team dedicated to animating only them; each animal in The Lion King is anonymous. It is a basic tenet of animation that the movement of a character makes the character, so it comes as no surprise that The Lion King is entirely lacking in that save a few bright moments with a warthog and meerkat.

A studio, a director, an actor, can get away with making just about anything if they can come up with some form of justification. There is no reason for The Lion King to exist, and if it makes money it will be out of inevitability rather than a marker of quality. This is a joyless exercise devoid of art or expression, a bad film on its own merits, and not just as an adaptation.

The Lion King opened in Australian cinemas on July 17, 2019.

Directed by: Jon Favreau.

Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.

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