While it is true that every late-stage Disney movie — whether they take the form of remakes (Beauty and the Beast), sequels (Christopher Robin) or reimaginings (Maleficent) — has to contend with the storied legacies of their forebears, I don’t think that any of them have had to do so to quite the same degree that Jon Favreau’s “live action” remake of The Lion King (1994) has had to. No, it didn’t get an unprecedented Best Picture nomination like Beauty and the Beast (1991). No, it wasn’t considered a particularly prestigious project at the time like Pocahontas (1995). It didn’t even have the distinction of kicking off the Disney Renaissance like The Little Mermaid (1989) or closing it out like Tarzan (1999).
Yet, despite all of this, it is widely considered one of, if not THE, best and most iconic movie of that golden period of Disney history. And that’s for good reason, too. The conversation that Beauty and the Beast started at the Oscars, The Lion King punctuated with gusto. It cemented in the minds of moviegoers that quality animation wasn’t going away any time soon, and that an award was needed to honor that revitalized tradition (although whether that was more for meritorious recognition of craft or merely cynical gatekeeping is a conversation for another day).
The fact remains, though, that the new The Lion King (2019), like that iconic shot of Simba sinking into his father’s gargantuan footsteps, was always going to have some very big shoes to fill. It was following not just a well-crafted animated feature, but a genuine benchmark classic. It was trying to do with photo-realistic animation (not live-action per se) what was so iconically realized with brazenly abstract and decidedly non-realistic animation decades prior. It had such an impossible legacy to live up to that they didn’t even try recasting the central role of Mufasa this time around: they just handed it back to a much older James Earl Jones for an encore performance.
It hardly even warrants a recap: it is a close (although by no means shot-for-shot, as some have mistakenly alleged) remake of one of the most rewatched and celebrated movies of the last three decades. And that movie, in itself, was already a loose-but-recognizable of one of the most performed and celebrated plays of the last four-hundred years. The Lion King has been the subject of sequels, TV spin-offs and merchandizing to such an alarming degree — has, in effect been continuously marketed to children for so long — that it’s scarce imaginable that any one of the millions of guaranteed patrons of the remake aren’t already intimately familiar with it. It is the centerpiece of countless childhoods, subject of countless annualized think-pieces and just as ubiquitous a force in popular culture as Star Wars and Marvel at this point.
And in its ability to faithfully re-create scenes perfectly realized in a better-suited medium by a more talented collection of filmmakers two and a half decades ago… it does fine. Just fine. This movie is… fine. Not good — not great (hardly!) — but serviceable, workmanlike, decently. It’s not quite bad (although it does teeter dangerously close to it at times), but is mostly just kind of boring. It’s fine.
The problem is that a project like this was only ever going to be fine: just fine. The lack of Human characters and physical sets raises the specter of why try to imitate live-action at all (although it actually still is animated, as the movie was “filmed” in VR sets using computer generated wildlife). The hyper-realistic characters that Favreau and his team were able to create suffer in the same ways that all such characters would suffer under the circumstances. The lack of human-like expressions on the steely-faced critters means that none of them come close to carrying the same emotional depth of their earlier incarnations. The general sameness of how all of the dozens of lion characters look means that it is at times quite difficult to tell each of them apart, especially when they’re all running around in the dark and fighting each other (most awkwardly was when it was unclear whether our protagonist was :”hugging” his mother or his love-interest).
The choreography, so distinct and lively in the original, was muted down to just “lions walking realistically.” Gone were the Nazi marches, vibrant explosions of abstract colors and generally stylized dance moves that informed so much of what was great about the original. In fact, they just cut out Be Prepared altogether, replaced with some half-sung monolog that borrows a couple of lines from that iconic, pitch-perfect song. And for some reason that I cannot even begin to fathom, Can You Feel the Love Tonight now takes place in the middle of the afternoon, creating a jarring dissonance between text and visuals that is so perfectly emblematic of this whole wrong-headed mess of a film.
It’s not as if the movie is utterly devoid of merit, either: just that virtually every change made from the original was the exact wrong decision throughout the movie’s much-expanded runtime. While the cast is a general improvement over the original cast, the new Scar is certainly no Jeremy Irons. His singing, such as it even is, and monologuing and interacting with all of the other characters is just such an obvious step down from what we were given in 1994. And if they were able to bring James Earl Jones back, and willing to cast non-whites in roles well-suited to them, why couldn’t Irons — who by all accounts was game to return — similarly be brought back on for an encore to his iconic villain performance (which, in turn, would further cement the meta-narrative conceit of the older generation stepping aside so that a newer one can finally take over)?
Although none of these remakes have been strictly speaking necessary, some have solidly justified their existence in the broader Disney canon. Cinderella (2015) recentered the story of its heroine on the character herself, rather than her pet rodents. The Jungle Book (2016) streamlined a story that never quite knew what to focus on. Even Maleficent (2014) gave us a fascinating deconstruction of a well-worn fairy tale by reimagining the ostensible children’s movie as, implicitly, a family-friendly rape-revenge movie. The Lion King, however, does none of these, and there is no reason you need to see it.
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