Well, here we are again. Mere months after both Dumbo and Aladdin hit cinema screens across the world, Disney are showing no signs of slowing the cogs of their regurgitation machine. The third remake of a beloved childhood classic of any kind might feel a little over the top at this point, but I think we can all agree that when it comes to The Lion King, the stakes are even higher. The 1994 original is arguably the crowning achievement of the period recognised as the ‘Disney Renaissance’. The images, poignant plot moments and musical accompaniments are things that have almost transcended the world of cinema. To give this story in particular a fresh coat of paint was either going to be a stroke of genius or a complete disaster. Sadly, I already had the feeling going in which one of those it was going to be.
Directed by Jon Favreau (who, it must be said, did a great job with The Jungle Book), 2019’s The Lion King is a visual marvel that, underneath its stunning CGI work, feels absolutely, positively, undeniably pointless. Have you ever felt the need to watch photorealistic lions jumping around awkwardly and mouthing the words to songs like they are chewing peanut butter in a 1990s Homeward Bound fashion? No, me neither.
The opening ‘Circle Of Life’ sequence that begins the film is undeniably stunning. Your eyes dart from one frame to the next absolutely in awe at the level of photorealism that is now being achieved in animated cinema. The iconic song blares and that little lion cub is held aloft and the title card booms on to the screen and I forgot to breath for a second. But then, the animals start talking. Do you know why most kids prefer to watch cartoons over nature documentaries? Because heaps of emotion and personality are woven in to the animated character’s faces. In this iteration of The Lion King, young Simba’s face looks exactly the same from playing with Nala to running from hyenas to discovering his father’s lifeless body. What, I ask you, is moving or enjoyable about that?
In their unfathomable quest to make everything look as real as possible, the filmmakers have forgotten to give the film any kind of heart or charm. With the exception of a few super fun Timon and Pumbaa sequences, the entire thing falls desperately flat. The score and songs of The Lion King are always going to evoke a deeply fond nostalgia in me, but believe me when I say that this version tries its best to ruin certain elements. Scar’s iconic ‘Be Prepared’, one of the greatest villain numbers in Disney history, is reduced to a brief, half hearted dramatic monologue. ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’, whilst beautifully performed, is inexplicably presented in full daylight. You can forget about any fun choreography in ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ because, you know, real animals don’t actually come together to create human pyramids.
Besides wanting to be witness to a staggering computer visuals feat, I honestly cannot come up with a single reason why any human being on this earth would want to watch this version of The Lion King over the 1994 original. I have never once felt the need to pop the radio on whilst watching a David Attenborough documentary.
The film boasts an exceptional cast of voice performers, but the photorealism simply does not allow for any of the characterisation to come through. It is nice to hear the imperious James Earl Jones back as Mufasa, if only to provide us with a link to the original.
Donald Glover takes the reins as adult Simba, doing a solid job, along with Beyonce as adult Nala. Their duet rendition of ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ is probably one of the film’s highlights, which is no surprise seeing as that particular number is sung over a montage sequence rather than from the awkward mouths of their characters.
I don’t know whether Chiwetel Ejiofor was unwilling to go down the Jeremy Irons route with Scar, or they simply wanted a far more sinister portrayal, but his bothering of Be Prepared is something that I just can’t forgive. Not to mention that the energy and character of Scar in particular suffers greatly from the photorealism. When you can’t tell who is who in the action between Simba and his uncle at the picture’s climax, you know there is something wrong.
If you’ll allow to me to change my tune for one second, I will say that Billy Eichner is pretty much perfect as an updated version of Timon, completely outshining Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa in every way. In a similar vein, John Oliver makes Zazu his own in a really fun way. It’s truly telling that the most enjoyable characters within the narrative are those who get to stray the furthest from their ‘authentic’, photorealistic constraints.
Overall, the only conclusion I can come to about The Lion King is that it is an unbelievable achievement in CGI, and not much else. There has to be a breaking point with these incessant remakes, and for me, this one comes perilously close. I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy the visuals or that a few elements of the film didn’t make me smile, but how satisfied can you be with a picture when you leave the cinema going “what is the fucking point?”. The most depressing thing is that at the end of the day, it just really doesn’t matter what any of us think. The Lion King is going to make a billion squillion dollars, and these remakes will keep getting thrown our way. It’s Disney’s very own circle of life. Cool now I’m off to play some songs and stare at the stoic, unmoving faces of my own cats.