The Lion King movie review: The greatest visual effects spectacle since Avatar; a monument to Hollywood excess
The Lion King
Director - Jon Favreau
Cast - Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, James Earl Jones
Rating - 3/5
The new Lion King is like a deeply triggering and very expensive episode of Planet Earth narrated by Childish Gambino, here to traumatise a whole new generation of viewers. Falsely described as a live-action remake, the film is, more accurately, a photorealistic animated demo reel for times to come, when actors and emotion are rendered obsolete, and our entertainment needs are facilitated by one corporation trapped in a circle of life of its own making.
For a film that exists purely to make money, it is narratively bankrupt - a shot-for-shot remake of a universally beloved classic that is ironically less affecting, despite aiming for realism, than the cartoon that inspired it. The story is still engaging, though, but it always has been, ever since it was called Hamlet. The new Lion King, I’m afraid, is tonally and visually similar to director Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book - a quasi-realistic fantasy in which animals (sort of) talk, but display none of the magic this very basic concept of talking animals demands.
Watch the Lion King trailer here
That being said, The Lion King is perhaps the greatest achievement in visual effects storytelling since Avatar - and distractingly so. As I understand, no live-action photography took place in the African savanna, but for the first time ever, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was computer- generated.
The Lion King script, now credited to veteran Disney scribe Jeff Nathanson, hits the exact same beats, but with an unmistakable deadness in the eye. Simba is born, he’s introduced to Pride Lands, taught lessons in honour and legacy by his father, Mufasa. When Mufasa is killed in a wildebeest stampede, young Simba is banished from the land by his evil uncle Scar, and is raised by a group of jolly animals, until years later, he is summoned back to claim what is rightfully his, and save the kingdom from Scar’s torment.
The cast, it must be said, is very good; especially Donald Glover as the adult Simba (who only arrives an hour into the film) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who had the unenviable task of filling Jeremy Irons’ shoes as Scar. But I was pleasantly surprised by how seamless the Hindi dub, lead by Shah Rukh Khan and his son Aryan was. Shah Rukh brings an incredible gravitas to the role of Mufasa, and his stardom seeps through the ones and zeroes of his formidable CGI character.
Curiously for a film that is so heavily dependent on its visuals, the musical numbers that were such a delight in the original Lion King are easily the most boring aspects of the remake. Instead of frolicking about in a Hula skirt or swinging from jungle vines, nearly all of Timon and Pumbaa’s song sequences involve interminably long walks. Sometimes they jog. And for some baffling reason (I’ll bet it was to do with the animation), the song Can You Feel the Love Tonight has been set in the daytime, which is, as you’d agree, a slap in the face of its title. But such is the power of Beyonce’s vocals, I guess. Besides utterly overwhelming poor Donald Glover, whose voice is reduced to mere background noise, they can successfully alter the time of day, in spite of lyrics that include words such as ‘evening’ and ‘twilight’.
As an experiment, try watching some of these musical numbers (they’re available on YouTube) with the volume turned off, and you’d notice this strange lack of flair, especially because the facial animation, despite everyone’s best efforts, is still quite iffy. It’s certainly less expressive than Andy Serkis’ recent Netflix film, Mowgli.
The Lion King, like the Jungle Book, is deeply ingrained in my mind - the natural side-effect of having seen it close to 200 times as a child, on a VHS tape that was showing visible signs of wear and tear. It was also my first introduction to the concept of death; the idea that a person - and I thought of Mufasa as a person - could simply cease to exist, in a moment, without having a say in the matter. This was massively unfair, and very scary. The only time Favreau’s film came close to evoking the same emotion was during Mufasa’s death scene, but I’d imagine this is more because of my relationship with the Lion King than anything that the film does.
This scene, like so many others in the movie, mimics the original with the sort of blind adoration that betrays the spirit with which Disney used to operate in the past. ‘Inspired’ by Favreau’s vision, composer Hans Zimmer has essentially remade his glorious, Oscar-winning original score. He even brought back the same conductor, the same orchestrator, and the same arranger. His iconic music cues have the power of immediately triggering memories, so in that regard, they succeeded.
After having seen all of Disney’s recent remakes - several of them very recently - the overwhelming takeaway is this: Each of these new films is enormously inferior to the originals. But also, none of these remakes seem to have been made for those of us who’ve grown up with the classics. Of course, Disney would like to count on your patronage. And you’re sort of compelled to check these movies out anyway; purely out of nostalgic curiosity, if anything. But the real targets are your children; innocent little critters who’ve never seen the animated originals before, despite your best efforts to transfer some of your own childhood passion onto them. But that, as Disney has taught us, is the circle of life.