When I reviewed Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book I proclaimed that it was a revolution in digital animation. The uncanny valley had been defeated and we now stood on the precipice of a new era in CGI, where you struggle to tell the difference between animation and live-action. With The Lion King director Jon Favreau has taken us across that precipice, up the street, around the corner, over the mountain, and through the damn woods. This movie is stupid in how good it looks. Mind melting in its striking beauty. Unbelievable in its perfect blending of live-action shots with CGI animals. You will be stunned by the movement of dirt and your jaw will drop at the detail in a soaking wet warthog. This movie is a non-stop visual orgasm (put that one on the poster, Disney).
It’s also just The Lion King again.
The Lion King
Director: Jon Favreau
Release Date: July 18, 2019
There are probably two people out there who haven’t seen original film so this paragraph is for you. Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover) is the next in line to become king of Pride Rock and “everything the light touches,” after his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones). However, his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to rule instead. In conjunction with the evil hyenas, Scar kills Mufasa and forces Simba to leave. Simba, scared and alone, meets Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), a meerkat and warthog respectively, who he grows up with without a care in the world until his childhood friend, Nala (Beyonce), finds him and tells him of the destruction Scar has wrought. Also, there’s some really good songs.
For those of you that skipped that paragraph because you already know the plot, rest assured there is not much new in this take for you to miss. In fact, this is probably the first Disney live-action remake that doesn’t really deliver anything new to the story or themes of the original film outside of a fresh, and admittedly gorgeous, coat of paint. Whereas the aforementioned Jungle Book used its stunning visuals to elevate the original’s tale this one seems content to mostly mimic its predecessor with only a few shifts in screenplay and lyrics. Hell, even Dumbo tried to head in a different direction at least. The Lion King feels like cut and paste with a few forced changes so that they could claim they weren’t making the same movie.
This doesn’t mean the movie is bad or fails in its own direction, but it is a letdown that after Favreau so wonderfully shifted The Jungle Book he seems more interested in remaking The Lion King “for real” than making it his own. The film is often a shot-for-shot redo of the original, and those shots look amazing, but they don’t bring anything new to the film itself. New direction that helped redefine this story into the context of the modern day and live-action take would have been even better.
There is also the very strange decision to completely change Scar’s classic villain song, “Be Prepared.” The striking moment from the original film, which saw the pwerful use of Nazi iconography coupled with German expressionism, is completely gone. The song nearly quartered into more of a spoken piece of poetry. It takes a truly sinister moment and turns it into next to nothing and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. Favreau works in shots and references to the original film everywhere else to almost a slavish extent but skips over this? If Disney didn’t want the Nazi angle or Ejiofor couldn’t sing a lick there were other ways to maintain a really powerful scene.
However, the original Lion King is a great movie and, like re-reading an old book and finding new joy in things you didn’t notice the first time, this version delivers some fantastic moments. When it does change around things it stands on its own fantastically, and that’s especially true of Timon and Pumba, who are the movie’s first real shift in characters. The two are still a lovable pair of goofy sidekicks but their banter and philosophizing about life is taken to another level. Rogen and Eichner are allowed to bring more to the characters than their predecessors and they instantly pick up a movie that seemed a bit on cruise control until that point. The pair even get an extended version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that’s just wonderful.
It is, in the end, the visuals that steal the show. You could watch this movie with no sound on and still enjoy it. Key scenes were filmed in true IMAX so if you can get to a legit IMAX screen to see the movie you should. Yes, the African savanna is visually amazing and Favreau (coupled with Black Stallion cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) has one hell of an eye for shots, but it’s really the animals that will take your breathe away. There’s not any weirdness with realistic animals talking and yet they all move and act like real animals. There’s odd twitches and movements that make them seem constantly alive and part of a real reality. Timon, for instance, is constantly moving his head, grabbing at things, and popping up and down like an actual meerkat. It’s incredible in its fidelity. There will be books written about his two live-action Disney films and how he ushered in a new age in CGI cinema. Hell, there’s probably going to be a Best Picture nomination.
One final note is that the addition of realistic animals means the original film’s violence is taken to another level. Mufasa’s death for instance is even more heartbreaking and shocking when it looks like a real dead lion and a real lion cub mourning. The flaming battle at the end of the film between Scar and Simba is probably some of the most visually compelling cinema we’ll get all year, but it’s also decidedly violent. It’s a nature show turned up to 11 and given a thrilling score by Hanz Zimmer. In short, the original film was once thought shocking for children and this movie is even more so.
The Lion King is the The Lion King, for better and for worse. At times it feels like the film equivalent of someone moving everything in your room half an inch to the left: slightly off, but you’re not sure why. At other times you could care less because of its relentless beauty. And then it will do something different and you’ll remember why most of these live-action remakes work. It’s a strange, wonderful, confusing beast, but it’s really wonderful to watch it roar.