REVIEW: The Lion King (2019)

With this year’s release of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, Disney finally reached peak redundancy. Their series of animated classic remakes has been a resounding success in commercial terms, and indeed Favreau’s film has grossed more than US$1.6 billion in cinemas worldwide. Creatively, however, it feels like a black page. It adds little to the 1994 original, and in comparison it lacks an awful lot. It is, I suppose, more palatable to contemporary audiences than it’s cel-animated namesake – audiences today are used to computer-generated animation, and by-and-large avoid anything with a more classical look.

Briefly, and for those who have been living in a cave for the past 25 years, The Lion King follows a young lion named Simba (voiced by JD McCrary and Donald Glover) who is heir to a set of African pridelands. When Simba’s uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) secretly murders his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones – the only lead actor from 1994 to return), Simba goes on the run while Scar assumes the throne. It is, in very broad terms, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only performed by cartoon animals.

The original Lion King, directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, was a ground-breaking animated film for Disney. Following on from technological and stylistic developments in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, it was essentially the first Disney feature to feel like a motion picture first and an animation second. Computer-aided animation led to an unprecedented depth of field and use of live-action style ‘camera angles’ in telling the story. Techniques of action cinema boosted the level of the film’s key action sequences, particularly in the still-remarkable wilderbeest stampede that acts as the first act climax. Character deaths – not unknown but still rare in Disney features – gave the film a stronger sense of gravitas and emotional weight.

The main sales pitch of Favreau’s Lion King appears to be its photorealism, but it is that precise aesthetic that causes many of the film’s problems. For one thing, an actual lion cannot emote in an anthropomorphic fashion like a hand-animated lion can. This goes for all of the new film’s characters: they simply lack presence. To be fair the realism actually works wonders for Favrea’s hyenas, who emerge this time as genuinely threatening antagonists, but it fails to help pretty much anywhere else. Everything feels oddly charmless, and it becomes more difficult to engage with the story.

The vocal performances vary. Most of the performances are fairly decent, particularly Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s double act as comic relief characters Timon and Pumbaa (they also get the film’s single-best joke), but some fall unexpectly flat. Chiwetel Ejiofor comes across as bizarrely disinterested as Scar, and while James Earl Jones’ encore performance as Mufasa seems a respectful choice his advancing age is clearly audible.

Events play out in a very similar fashion to the original, at least up to the film’s midpoint. The second half is admittedly more promising than the first, as Favreau adds in a few new scenes and allows himself a bit more latitude in playing out events towards the climax. A bit more originality in the film’s first half would have helped the film enormously. The film’s attitude to music – the original featured several musical numbers – is uneven and refuses to commit one way or another. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” replays a visibly abstract song from 1994 in a realist fashion, which essentially removes the charm of it. Scar’s Riefenstahl-esque anthem “Be Prepared” loses its original lyrics, melody, and Nazi references (possibly for the best, but certainly less bold). Co-star Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, who plays the adult lioness Nala, also contributes her own song – one assumes to give the film a chance at winning a Best Song Academy Award, since none of the older numbers are eligible.

Taken as a whole, The Lion King is not terrible, per se, but it is aggressively ordinary. Its lack of originality betrays an enormous cynicism. All studio-produced features exist to make money, of course, but they usually find room for creativity and artfulness as well. This simply doesn’t feel like a story – it feels like a property. It doesn’t have characters – only intellectual property. It is ultimately just a reproduction of brand in an attempt to make a billion dollars. On that level, and only that level, The Lion King is a success.

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