Review - 'The Lion King'
Up until this review I hadn’t really rebelled against these Disney live-action remakes, in fact, I sort of enjoyed experiencing them re-interpreted through a different medium. Well, after watching Jon Favreau’s The Lion King remake, my feelings have changed. This film has no reason to exist other than to be a tech demo for how exceptional CGI has become.
Do we need a plot synopsis? Has anyone not seen the original? Okay, for the few of you who need a refresher, The Lion King follows a pride of lions, whose king is Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who is grooming his son, Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover) to be the next king. Mufasa’s dejected brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has other designs and has eyes on the throne. Scar, who aligns himself with a pack of ravenous hyenas, plans a hostile takeover.
The Lion King has nearly nothing to say that hasn’t already been said before. If you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one, which made the experience of watching this film seem like a minor crime against my wallet. Do you pay the same amount of money to see a cover band of Led Zeppelin as you would the real Led Zeppelin? No, but that’s what Disney wants us to do with their remake of The Lion King. The problem with this new film is that the only thing different about it is the fact that they tried to make everything photo-realistic, which brings with it a whole new set of issues.
If Disney and director Jon Favreau had decided to use the loose framework of the Lion King story and build new ideas around it, this could have been a much more successful creative endeavor, instead, it plays out as a near shot-for-shot remake, which seals its fate from the start. As a viewer, I can’t help but compare every frame to the original, especially from a property that is so well-known to just about everyone. Nothing can completely match something else and thus, this remake is immediately, and drastically inferior from the start.
What doesn’t help things, as briefly mentioned before, is the photo-realism of the animals featured. From one perspective, yes, the visual effects here are incredibly impressive and a new land-mark for computer-generated imagery. From another, REAL LIONS DON’T TALK, AND THEY DEFINITELY DO NOT SING!!! That said, and I say this with a loud, passive-aggressive sigh, some performances translate better than others. What I found while watching the movie was that actors who had a slower cadence in their speech fared far better than ones who spoke quickly. Mufasa is played by James Earl Jones yet again, and his character is low on emotion and speaks slowly and methodically, this somewhat works with the nature of a real lion. Same goes for scar, who is voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The menace of Scar is palpable and one of the few things that carries over successfully from the original film. Simba, however, is a total lost cause. JD McCrary does a fine vocal performance as young Simba, but it never syncs up properly to the animated character on-screen, he just talks too fast and too energetically that a real-ish looking lion can’t replicate that same level of energy. Donald Glover, who voices older Simba, does even worse, his performance is lazy and poorly delivered, resulting in scenes that feel hollow and lifeless, which is a problem when Simba is your lead character. Apart from Glover, I actually don’t take a lot of issue with the vocal performances when taken alone, it’s just that you can’t meld them with live-action, these actors are doing vocal performances for a cartoon, and Favreau has not envisioned his Lion King as a cartoon.
An even more egregious crime against the original film, and cinema in general, is the absolute butchery of the musical numbers. The songs are nearly un-changed, but the musical numbers fall completely flat due to the choreography and are borderline laughable to watch. I didn’t laugh, though, I was too busy cringing and squirming in my seat, pleading for it to end. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” takes place during the day, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is low-energy and unconvincing, “Be Prepared” is a song that is barely sung, and consists of alternating mumbled and shouted lines by Ejiofor. It’s bad and all of the musical numbers should have been lifted out of the film whole-cloth.
There are a few moments that do work, though, and for those of you who haven’t seen The Lion King, I’m going to spoil one of them. Mufasa’s death is actually done very well, and I nearly teared up because it looked like the death of a real lion. Which actually leads me to the one thing this film does differently than the original that is noteworthy. Seeing a real-looking lion die as opposed to an animated one results in a more visceral and tangible reaction. Seeing these animals have human personalities and emotions, and then be murdered on-screen, I have to believe, is a direct condemnation of game-hunting and poaching, and I think it really made me sympathize with animals on a level I wouldn’t have had this been a cartoon. Who knows, but maybe kids watching this for the first time will look upon animals with a little more empathy going forward. One can only hope.
Despite the positive message, The Lion King wields nostalgia in all of the wrong ways. I am expected to see this film and enjoy it because it reminds me of the original, but it plays out so closely to the source material that I can’t help but notice how faint of an imitation it is in almost every way. The effects are impressive, but other than that there is absolutely no reason to watch this film.