The Lion King Review
As is widely known by now, Martin Scorsese’s next film, The Irishman, will rely heavily on CGI to de-age the likes of De Niro, Pacino and co. for the various flashback scenes. Scorsese is still working feverishly in post production to perfect the ‘youthification’ of the actors and recently raised some concerns: “When we put them all together, it cuts back and forth... Now, it’s real. Now, I’m seeing it. Now, certain shots need more work on the eyes, need more work on exactly the same eyes from the plate shot, but the wrinkles and things have changed. Does it change the eyes at all? If that’s the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”.
The word Scorsese was probably looking for is soul. For all the cinematic advancements CGI has given us over the past 30 years, there are limitations to how ‘real’ it can feel. That connection is absent everywhere you look in Disney’s ‘live-action’ remake of The Lion King, the stunning virtual cinematography unable to capture the life behind their eyes. Perhaps it’s fitting as a Disney film that the end product of an estimated $250 million worth of work should feel so hollow, and the entire reason for remaking these films comes full circle (of life) and is rendered (in every sense) pointless by the end.
Almost every remake is haunted by its predecessor, especially when you attempt to make a near carbon copy of the original (just ask Gus Van Sant). The 2019 version of The Lion King is about 25 minutes longer but for the most part it’s a shot-for-shot recreation of what we first saw 25 years ago. That makes separating the two impossible and never gives Jon Favreau’s film an opportunity to stand on its own four paws. The opening 'Circle of Life' segment is a perfect case in point: it matches almost every scene of the original to a T but something is missing.
It’s a feeling that persists and grows the longer the film continues. The opening is a statement of intent from Disney, the perfect opportunity to launch all of their technical wizardry and financial might at the screen wrapped inside a moment of nostalgia. As a company they are bigger and more powerful than at any point in their history and that is felt within the first five minutes. There’s no denying how jaw-dropping the photorealism looks, and it marks the start of a new dawn for CGI, but the warmth and vibrancy that gave life to the hand drawn animation is no longer there.
The 1994 film and numerous stage productions have raked in billions for Disney over the past two decades and a half, which is probably the main reason why Favreau sticks so rigidly to the formula. There are a few small minor changes and added narrative beats but nothing too serious to deviate from the path laid out by the opening sequence. James Earl Jones returns to the role of King Mufasa (anyone else would struggle to do it justice), with likes of Donald Glover (older Simba), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Alfie Woodard (Sarabi), Beyoncé (older Nala), Billy Eichner (Timon), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), John Oliver (Zazu) and John Kani (Rafiki) all where they should be.
Despite the stellar work of a strong voice cast they largely struggle to connect with the animals they are portraying. Obviously, lions, warthogs and the like cannot talk, and their anatomical make-up mean their faces lack the dexterity required to do so. In-turn, Disney’s reliance on hyperrealism limits their own ambition. The top half of the animal’s faces remain almost motionless as they speak, unable to express the right level of emotion. There are a few moments when they get the right mouth movement to match the words, but that is rare and mostly it just looks poorly synced. Again, without wanting to repeatedly beat the same drum, the meaning and inflection of the words are lost in the translation between traditional and computer-generated animation.
The extra 25 minutes are somewhat unnecessary but Favreau deserves praise for never letting the pace drag. Things move along energetically enough without too much downtime. And while they are hamstrung by the limits of the animation, there are times when the voice cast do bring their respective characters to life. Rogen and Eichner are good fun as Pumbaa and Timon, while Ejiofor is impressive as Scar, sounding more like Ian McKellen as the weary, scheming family outcast plotting his Shakespearean revenge. All of the songs you’d expect to hear are there, re-recorded by the new cast and they at least still have a beating heart (Beyoncé's new song is inevitably squeezed in too).
Next year’s Best Visual Effect Academy Award is already a no-contest and where War for the Planet of the Apes took things up a few notches, The Lion King elevates the bar even higher. Robert Legato and Adam Valdez are the visual effect supervisors responsible for upping the ante, and their slavish dedication to compositing onto the Serengeti mean there is only so much even an experienced cinematographer like Caleb Deschanel can do with the location. Disney have given their all to recreating reality as we know it, and in doing so have lost the very thing that makes it feel meaningful.
The Lion King opens nationwide in UK cinemas on July 19.
The Lion King (2019)
Dir: Jon Favreau | Cast: Donald Glover, John Kani, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen | Writers: Brenda Chapman (story), Irene Mecchi (characters), Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Jonathan Roberts (characters), Linda Woolverton (characters)