‘The Lion King’ Review

What is art? What defines it? Can a film simply consisting of technological innovations qualify? What if those innovations are utilized solely for a heartless, soulless cash grab, lacking of any style or substance? If so, must we discount those original Edison and Lumière Brother films, created solely to demonstrate the abilities of the camera? All of these questions swim in my head as I emerge from Disney’s remake of The Lion King, which seems to be their interpretation of the immortal quotation from Dr. Ian Malcolm, “They spent so much time wondering if they could, they didn’t stop to ask themselves if they should.” Jon Favreau and Disney have proven that they are, in fact, capable of creating realistic-ish versions of classic animated fables, but unfortunately do so at the cost of any heart and soul the original may have had (if any).

Simba (JD McCrary) is the young lion prince of the Pride Lands, an area of the plains of Africa. His father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), wants to raise him to be a good king and a good lion. However, fate intervenes when Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stages a coup with a gang of hyenas, leaving Mufasa dead and a guilty Simba to flee for his life. Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) grows up with the help of two lovable hipsters, meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). However, when his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé) begs him to return to claim his throne from his wicked uncle, Simba must learn the importance of responsibility in order to overcome his past and take his place as the Lion King. That’s it. It’s the same movie as last time. There’s nothing new that you have to worry about.

I’m not going to mince any words about it: the animation in this film is simply stunning. And in case you were wondering, no, I’m not going to refer to these effects as “live action,” because this is simply a new take on animating film. What Jon Favreau and his team of animators, led by Robert Legato, Elliot Newman, and Adam Valdez, have pulled off here is revolutionary to the craft. Time and care have gone into giving each animal, each blade of grass, and each drop of water enough detail to push past the Uncanny Valley and unite audiences in awe and wonder. The hyenas possess an air of menace, the water extraordinarily reflects images that simply should not exist, and God, Baby Simba is the cutest thing you will ever see. There are several shots of the little scamp running across plains and deserts that elicited multiple “Awws” from both young children and grown adults sitting in the audience around me. And while many, if not all, of the scenes still appeared flat enough that my keen eye still managed to identify the CGI in the trees, animals, and landscapes, that doesn’t prevent it from standing out as an otherworldly, impressive experience. One of my favorite shots of the entire film, shown several times in the trailers already, features young Simba’s paw standing inside his father’s massive footprint. It’s a visually striking metaphor for Simba’s own naiveté, and how he has a long way to go before he’s ready to take his father’s place, no matter how grown up he thinks he is. Every hair in that shot, every patch of dirt, and every shadow is meticulously detailed, and I sit here in awe of it hours later.

Unfortunately, that very animation that makes this film such a wonder is, at many times, also its undoing. Because this film isn’t just an animal documentary on National Geographic: it is a living, breathing musical, where the animals are required to talk and sing – and this time without their anthropomorphic mouths and features. The problem here is that animals’ mouths are not intended to move like humans, so when an animal is required to speak – or God forbid, sing – their lips just don’t move in a convincing enough manner to convince audiences that these animals are communicating. Oftentimes, their words don’t even meet the movements of their lips. Even Mr. Ed looked more realistic, and the 60s classic didn’t even have access to CGI! Even worse is the fact that the animals have no way of emoting during any of their major scenes. Whereas the cartoon could show Young Simba crying over his father’s body, fear inside the eyes of Mufasa as he’s murdered, or horniness as Simba and Nala frolic to Elton John, these lions just sort of…stand there. It doesn’t help that the actors often sound disinterested while reading their lines, but overall, there’s just no sense of emotion for audiences to relate to. When Nala reunites with Simba after believing he was dead, she could not have a more nonchalant attitude. And Mufasa’s death looks so hilariously fake, a shoehorned flashback to it near the finale will leave you chortling in the aisles. But the worst part of this lack of emotion (all in the name of “realness”) is what it does to the songs. The reason the original film was such a success was because Elton John’s music was so infectious, audiences were willing to look past Tim Rice’s bad lyrics (SOMEBODY had to say it…) to focus on the dazzlingly colorful sequences onscreen. Here, when the animals sing their big songs…they kind of just stand there, or run around, or walk slowly. It’s the equivalent of listening to a karaoke cover while watching Animal Planet – they just don’t go together. Oh, and on a personal gripe, despite all the claims from the production team surrounding “perfectly accurate recreations of all the different animals,” the film neglects to provide Simba, Nala, or any of the animals a working set of genitals. Animal genitalia is not disallowed in animated or live action movies – I know; I’ve checked. So why not let Simba and Nala look at least somewhat like real lions, as opposed to Barbie Doll smooth cartoons? At the very least let me keep Rafiki’s hilariously big and red baboon butt. If you’re not going to add that in, then what’s even the point?

Of course, you can’t make a film on visuals alone. The visuals have to be in support of something greater – a story of some sort, or at the very least some sort of themes. And that’s the biggest issue with The Lion King: it’s the exact same story, which was already a lazy ripoff of Hamlet in the first place. Now, I should be honest with you all: I’m not really a big Lion King fan. It never clicked with me as a child, I never really resonated with it as an adult (outside of that perfect first five minutes), and while I found the Broadway musical to be visually spectacular, I only got through the plot by imagining I was seeing a Wicked-esque retelling where Scar is the hero (the adults around me were not pleased when I applauded the death of Mufasa and cheered loudest for “Be Prepared”). The most I ever appreciated this film was when I exaggerated my affection for it to impress a girl. It did not work. However, even if I was a fan of the original, I feel like I would be offended by Disney’s attempts to duplicate the original, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho-style, shot-for-shot in a desperate attempt to raid our pocketbooks. Everything about this movie is the exact same as the 90s cartoon. Every line of dialogue is the same. The score is the same. Even the way the “scenes” are shot is designed to just recreate the cartoon. You remember that shot I was talking about earlier? The one of Young Simba’s foot inside Mufasa’s footprint? Yeah, I found out later that this was a recreation of a shot from the original. The music is exactly the same, right down to Lebo M returning to sing “Circle of Life” and Hans Zimmer returning to recreate his original score. Although I’ll be fair and give Zimmer credit: he tweaked “Stampede” just enough that it sounds better than ever during the infamous death sequence. Now you may be wondering: if this is just a shot for shot remake, how come its longer by almost a half hour? Well, there are two reasons for this. One I will discuss in a moment, but the other is they just tacked on a couple of extra minutes to famous transition scenes to show off their technology. Remember that scene where Scar catches a mouse and monologues to it? That’s now a six minute sequence of a mouse running around. Remember when Rafiki realizes that Simba’s still alive? Now there’s a ten-minute Forrest Gump-esque sequence involving a furball that ends up in poop. But outside of these two scenes, this is a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor.

But let’s break down those interims, shall we? I want to explore that half hour of differences, what they add to the story, and what they take away, starting with Scar. Scar remains one of The Lion King’s biggest assets and conundrums. Particularly because, honestly, I still kind of want to root for him. I mean, sure, the film does attempt to throw in a few pointed sequences where Scar gets into some fascist ideology – in one of the only moments he demonstrates political motivations, he tells the hyenas, “Mufasa has been too restricting on our hunting. As the top of the food chain, we should be able to take whatever we want!” But outside of this one sequence, what have we, the audience, seen? We’ve seen the hyenas express a desire for democracy and an opportunity for a fair shake (they’ve been driven from the hunting grounds by Mufasa, leaving lions the only carnivores), and we’ve seen Young Simba act like an arrogant, entitled brat (honestly, even moreso from the original movie, which is part of his growth but still jarring). I’m not saying Scar’s quest for democracy is the answer, per se, I’m just saying the film’s mixing of metaphors surrounding the lions’ politics is mishandled. And while we’re on the subject of real world ramifications on this movie, I want to talk about Sarabi and the other lionesses. Somehow, in spite of casting Alfre Woodard as Simba’s tough-as-nails mother, Sarabi is given less to do in the film’s extended runtime. That’s right: they demoted one of the original film’s most beloved characters from major supporting character to a minor supporting character without missing a beat. And what’s worse is they want us to applaud this decision by sliding in casual lines about Sarabi being the one doing the hunting. Nope. Sorry Disney. You don’t get bonus points for describing something you don’t actually make the effort of showing.

Speaking of useless characters, Rafiki is also given the short end of the stick, barely appearing and never acting the part of a Yoda-esque sage; it’s even worse when they try to give him a dramatic, applause-worthy moment where he pulls out his staff for the first time, which elicits nothing but eyerolls. There’s a lot of scenes like that in this movie, where they throw in moments of fan service that serve no purpose, like the revelation of how Scar got his scar, or where Simba shouts out, “You don’t know me! You don’t know my past!” like some punk out of Dangerous Minds. And then there are changes that make me laugh, on a gut level, like the removal of the infamous SFX cloud that has always been misread. However, what’s perhaps most insulting of all is the fact that The Lion King has removed one of the core messages from the original film. One of the most famous moments from the original comes when Rafiki hits Simba on the head with his staff, explaining to him that the past will always hurt, but you can either “Run from it or learn from it.” This is an important lesson for children, and all audiences for that matter. However, while Simba still has his famous moment looking up at his father’s cloud in the sky, the lesson he learns from this interaction has been cut out completely. I’ve written a lot by now about the soulless nature of the film, and this is what I’m talking about. Even more than the lack of emotion in the voices, or the lack of emotion in the animals, I’m talking about the lack of emotion inside the script itself. Without that important lesson and theme at the heart of this story, this film just flat out stops functioning. And it serves as a major stumbling block.

Most of the other changes, like a new Beyoncé song, register at a “Meh, whatever” towards the film’s overall result, but I wanted to get these issues off my chest now, so I can return to what works. And what is it that does work? Timon and Pumbaa, of course. Listen, I always liked Timon and Pumbaa. I thought their spin-off TV show was good as a kid, and The Lion King 1½ is a fun spin on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But honestly, they never really moved the gauge for me in the original film. However, here, in this newest iteration, they full stop steal the show, from the very moment they come charging in (which is a breathtaking sequence, I kid you not). I’m not sure exactly why I liked Timon and Pumbaa so much this time around, but I’ve pinpointed two reasons that seem the most likely. The first is the length. I mentioned above that there were a few reasons this iteration of The Lion King is longer than its animated predecessor, and one of them is that Jon Favreau just refused to cut any of the extended riffs that Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen went on inside the recording booth. The two of them are incredibly talented actors and comedians, and they shared a comedic timing that I wasn’t expecting from two distinctive performers. The other reason they work, I believe, is because of the way the film lets them interact. While Timon and Pumbaa have always been calm hippie-types chilling on their secret vegan commune, Eichner and Rogen’s take on the character goes one step beyond. Here, our beloved meerkat and warthog are full-on nihilists, having embraced their totem on the food chain with the motto, “Life’s not a circle, it’s a straight line. We live, and we die. Life is meaningless!” I am all in on a children’s film where beloved characters are this hilariously bleak. It’s why Charlie Brown is my favorite cartoon character. Add in a visually stunning (if admittedly disappointingly staged) rendition of “Hakuna Matata,” and you’ve got a film with more than a little life in it.

As for the voice work, I’m not sure I have that much to say. Outside of Eichner and Rogen, who bring their all to the performance (Eichner improvising, “Oh God, now he’s riffing!” about Adult Simba is one of my hardest theatre laughs in months), the cast is mostly just…fine. Certain performers, like Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor, really bring their all to their roles, in ways you didn’t expect. Glover’s really got a voice, and brings the emotion, while Ejiofor is still funny and menacing even if he doesn’t quite embrace Jeremy Irons’ overt coding (and Ejiofor can SING! Who knew?!?) Other performers are wonderful, through and through, like JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph as Young Simba and Young Nala, who provide the most vocally engaging performances of the lot. Some actors seem like perfect casting, but just don’t have the material. Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and (an unrecognizable) Eric André are, in theory, the perfect voices for the hyenas, but just don’t have the material to shine, while John Oliver, who literally is Zazu the pedantic bird, is forced to make bad Last Week Tonight puns and shout “For King and Country” during battle sequences. And some actors pretty much do nothing just to get a paycheck – did James Earl Jones actually record lines for this role, or just send in his old tapes from the first one. And then…there’s Beyoncé. There are a lot of great Beyoncé moments in this film. Her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” is as breathtaking as you hope it will be, and when she says “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed,” you’ll feel it deep in your core. But – and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, and I’m sorry to the entire Hive out there – Beyoncé is kind of meh in this movie. She brings no emotion to her part, she barely inflects on any line…if it were live action, I would straight out call it a bad performance. In her defense, her lion’s animation is dead behind the eyes. But still, Glover managed to make his lion sound emotional. Couldn’t she have just inflected just a little bit more? Ok, ok, I’m done, please don’t murder me, Beyoncé fans.

The Lion King is a gorgeous retelling of the 90s classic, but I can’t help but think, “Why is this necessary?” Even in past Disney remakes, there’s something the filmmakers were trying to accomplish: the 2015 Cinderella explored step-mother/step-daughter relationships, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast explored forbidden love and mob mentality (always relevant), the 2019 Dumbo was a metaphor for corporatization ruining art (ironically), and all of those films found ways to add to the original story to mine for deeper content. This…this is just the same movie, but with “real” animals. It is the Saturday Night Live “America’s Funniest Cats” sketch, or Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, but without the irony. It’s people talking over real animals to make them seem real, except the animals aren’t even that realistic. And it all plays out without the heart necessary to make it work. If you’re a fan of the original, go ahead and see it. If you want to see something you’ve never seen before, go ahead and see it. It won’t kill you, and you won’t be angry. I myself felt dazzled and mesmerized more than a few times, even to an extent I never felt in the original. But ultimately, this film doesn’t need to exist, and I can’t muster the energy to move the gauge one way or the other.

C+

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