The throw-out umbrella term “live action” used to describe the slough of Disney “re-imaginations” is a misnomer. It has been since The Jungle Book recreation in 2016, which is live action only in its employment of Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Everything else in that film is comprised of computer generated visual effects.
With The Lion King, Jon Favreau returns after The Jungle Book to direct, and the film is 100% near-photorealistic CG. It is not animation. It is not “live action.” But what it is, certainly, is a box office sure thing. Call it a cynical studio cash grab (I will), but what is at issue with The Lion King (2019) only begins with the cynicism and the misnomer.
The Disney pipeline continuously stomach-pumping capital out of the global box office is far more visible in this film than with the products of its recent subsidiary properties (Marvel, Lucasfilm, etc.). This visibility sours the experience further, to be certain. However, had The Lion King had the blissful wonderment and extravagance that it was clearly going for than it may have had a sweeter aftertaste. It’s hard to know with any certainty.
The attempt to dazzle audiences with a visual effects demo reel that puts you deep into the Sahara is not “live action,” but it is ambitious. The result has caused some online commotion. Perhaps a truly photo-real effect is too close to the sun for CG at this juncture of technological development.
The cynicism only bothers me so much. The experience of watching The Lion King did not exacerbate my already-established concerns. The CG has some weird aspects to it. But the film has plenty of gorgeous effects work, as well.
What is wrong with The Lion King, then? It is an empty two hours, beginning with a nostalgic whirlwind that blows in and out of the sails of this Disney ship in 10 minutes time. The “Circle of Life” sequence that so boldly opens the original film is recreated in a nearly shot-for-shot manner here. It is beautiful. Disney could have released it as a short film, and people would probably have adored it. But money, ya know?
Following this opening, the songs feel dramatically and emotionally inert, even when Favreau and Co. are going for shots mirroring the original. And some scenes simply do not translate when shots are staged the same (one slow motion shot that is followed by an intense zoom is particularly jarring, and it elicited some laughs in my screening).
The film is as hollow as can be. The voice acting is often awkward, both in delivery and how the performance is rendered into CG. The only exceptions are Timon and Pumbaa as portrayed by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who breathe comic relief (some new and some recycled from 1994) into the thuddingly monotone film. Other comic relief, like Jon Oliver’s Zazu, does not work as fluidly. And the “lead” performances of Donald Glover as Simba, Beyonce Knowles as Nala, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar are notably lacking in personality.
I’m not one to hold the original slate of Disney renaissance films up as sacred cows. The Lion King (1994) is a very good film. Largely, this is because the music is dynamic and thrilling and the Greek tragedy narrative of homeland and family in crisis has an emotional pulse.
The Lion King (2019), on the other hand, is visually flat with sub-par musical re-hashing and no feeling in its bones.
The film is slightly extended from the original, and what is added doesn’t add much beyond time squirming in the seat waiting for the end. What little was altered from the original, outside from Timon and Pumbaa, is underwhelming. The hyena characters are altered, and both their comic relief and menace are worse off for it. A few scenes involving Scar’s evil reign are added to no necessary end. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” takes place during the day now (?).
In the end, it is undeniably evident that the magic trick Disney is trying to pull off hinges on the prestige (in Nolan parlance) of nostalgia. In replacing animation with realistic computer effects, they attempt a disappearing act. Then they pull the curtain down, hoping the shot-for-shot musical numbers will be magic to your eyes.
The only disappearing act occurred inside of your wallet. But there’s that cynicism again.
The Lion King: C-
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)