REVIEW – ‘The Lion King’ is a strikingly beautiful beast without a soul

How do you remake a film that’s genuinely flawless? More importantly, why should you even bother? This is the inherent problem facing any Disney “live-action” remake seeking to capture the spirit and essence of a golden animated predecessor. We know the why, of course. Nostalgia brings in the box office dollars and Disney is intent on pillaging its vault of classics for huge financial gain. And they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

Arriving less than two months (!) after another remake of a 90s Disney treasure is edging towards earning a billion dollars, The Lion King will undoubtedly rake in even more business at the worldwide box office. Sadly, the whole experience proves even more pointless than what Aladdin offered up. Reductive is an understatement for this shot-for-shot rehashing that’s nothing more than wildly impressive visuals with absolutely no heart. When all is said and done, The Lion King is a strikingly beautiful beast without a soul.

Plot summaries of these Disney remakes seem entirely redundant, right? For those uninitiated, The Lion King takes place in the African Pride Lands where King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) rule from atop Pride Rock. The entire kingdom has gathered for the presentation of young lion cub Simba (JD McRary), now the undisputed heir to the throne, much to the chagrin of his jealous and villainous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Under the protective eye of his parents, Simba and his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) blissfully explore the Pride Lands, with the King’s pesky hornbill majordomo and begrudging babysitter Zazu (John Oliver) always by their side. When Simba begins to develop an arrogant nature, Mufasa explains how all animals are connected in the great “circle of life,” and he’s expected to show more humility and respect for all living things once he becomes king.

It’s clearly not a mantra felt within the rest of Mufasa’s family, as his envious brother sculks in the shadows with a plan to eliminate both king and prince and usurp the throne for himself. This is a kid’s film, right? His devious scheme comes to fruition when Scar tricks Simba into waiting at the bottom of a gorge that soon becomes overrun by a stampede of wildebeest, purposely herded into the canyon by Scar’s gang of evil hyenas. When Mufasa attempts to save his trapped son, Scar murders the King and manipulates naive Simba into believing it was all his fault.

Given the remainder of the pride believe Simba also perished in the stampede, Scar ascends the throne unchallenged, offering his faithful hyenas domain over the kingdom. Disgraced and guilt-ridden, Simba flees the Pride Lands, where he’s rescued by meerkat Timon (a sublime Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (an endearing Seth Rogen), who take the young cub under their wing, encouraging him to embrace their carefree “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle. As adult Simba (Donald Glover) tries to forget his past, he’s soon visited by Nala (Beyoncé), who has left the Pride Lands in desperate search of help to end Scar’s reign of terror.

Right from the initial African chant refrains of “Circle of Life,” the nostalgia vibes of this remake will hit you in the feels. The original still stands as featuring one of the most glorious opening sequences ever committed to film, so it’s hard not to feel something seeing it anew in this version. As the animals of Africa gather for Simba’s introduction to the kingdom, the set-piece is every bit as dazzling and evocative as its animated counterpart. Sure, the element of surprise is gone (a problem that besets this entire production), but it’s the perfect display of the CGI extravagances this film has to offer. Unfortunately, it’s all pretty much downhill from here.

Everything that follows is essentially a shot-for-shot recreation of the 1994 animated version. You can’t help but wonder what on earth the point is with giving this film two hours of your time when it fails to deliver barely anything you can’t find within the original. It’s the Disney equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s lazy and useless 1998 remake of Psycho. It’s not going to stop this film making a billion dollars, but surely audiences will walk away from this remake feeling a little cheated. Or maybe they won’t mind in the slightest. After all, they keep lining up to plonk their money down for these things without a hint of restraint.

Of course, this “live-action” (it’s not live-action by any means, but Disney seem insistent on calling it as such, so one must abide) reimagining offers our beloved animated animal cast as flawless and authentic photorealistic creations more akin to what we’d expect from a nature documentary. On a visual scale alone, The Lion King is indeed an extravaganza like few others in 2019. If nothing, there is a hell of a lot to view here.

What Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisors Robert Legato and Adam Valdez have crafted is nothing short of masterful. Both the animal characters (of which there are truly dozens upon dozens) and the sweeping African landscapes are so dazzlingly accurate, you sometimes have to remind yourself practically every single frame of this film has been crafted inside a computer. In a technical sense, The Lion King achieves visual splendours that set a new benchmark for what CGI can deliver. If only there were more here than just a spectacle for the eyes.

Once the animals begin to talk, this film truly falls apart. And, clearly, that’s a huge issue in a movie exclusively starring talking animals. With jarringly emotionless faces and flapping mouth movements reminiscent of the animatronic robot figures found inside Disney’s theme parks, there’s little emotion to be elicited from an audience. When compared to the deep emotional resonance the animated version carries, nothing here lands anywhere near the same impact, particularly Mufasa’s shocking murder. An entire generation of 90s kids were left devastated by the death of the beloved king. Presented here in exactly the same fashion, the same scene feels so shockingly hollow and empty.

Without the empathetic facial movements to convey any semblance of emotion, it’s genuinely impossible to connect with these characters. It’s why the demise of a major player like Mufasa barely registers a reaction from an audience. Every line of dialogue feels like nothing more than the actors doing a stonefaced table read of the screenplay. That’s not always the performers’ fault, with the majority of the cast giving lively and spirited voiceover performances. It’s simply never matched by what their CGI avatar is conveying on screen. As McRary cries over the death of his character’s father, the lion cub’s face remains bizarrely blank, working entirely at odds with the emotion the actor is so desperately attempting to deliver.

Any emotional reaction to this version of The Lion King will more likely be driven by nostalgic memories of what the original film offered than what this remake is delivering, particularly when complemented by Hans Zimmer‘s stirring score, which has been expanded and refreshed in glorious style. By sticking achingly close to the animated version, director Jon Favreau relies too heavily on the audience’s existing connection to a film that’s been part of their lives for 25 years. It’s the lazy option any remake has to consider taking, and Favreau takes the safest route possible. It’s a shame there’s no concerted effort to reach for something more.

With a running time half an hour longer than the original, the remake does indeed expand and add to the narrative, but there’s really nothing new here to rave about. Nala is given more to do (you didn’t think they’d hire Beyonce just to have her stand in the background, did you?) and is far more a central character to the narrative than before. The screenplay has been tweaked and reworked here and there, which is usually to the detriment of the final product. Whoever made the sinful decision to remove Scar’s infamous line, “Simba, it’s to die for!” is a damn fool.

Several sequences have been pointlessly expanded to stretch this film out, particularly an utterly ludicrous set-piece where a tuft of Simba’s fur travels across the Pride Lands to reach Rafiki (John Kani) to alert the baboon the rightful king is still alive. As the fur is passed from animal to animal, it’s nothing more than the chance for visual effects wizard to show off their skills before the fur ultimately becomes entangled inside a ball of giraffe dung. Did we really need to see this?

As for the musical numbers, they’re all here again in beat-for-beat remake style. Some still work wonderfully well, like the aforementioned “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata,” which Eichner and Rogen make entirely their own. But a few fall flat on their face. The colourful and outlandish animated staging of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” has been garishly toned down (none of the animals even looks left or right in this version) to meet the film’s more authentic visual aesthetic.

While Glover and Beyoncé offer a gorgeous rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the entire sequence is set during the day, which is confoundingly dense. And the less said about Ejiofor’s bizarre monotone spoken-word rendition of “Be Prepared” the better. It’s dead on arrival and may we never speak of it again. The only addition to the cherished soundtrack is a brand-new track from Queen Bey entitled “Spirit,” which is utilised at just the right moment and slides into the existing score with perfect ease. In a film mostly devoid of uplifting moments, it’s one of the few moments your heart will soar. And, given the superstar wrote the track herself, it will unquestionably score Beyoncé her first Oscar nomination next year.

In terms of the voiceover performances themselves, they’re all entirely fine, but none of the main cast reaches the level of anything remarkably memorable. The major issue stems from the lack of adaptation with the dialogue from the animated film to match the new voice cast’s personalities. This is particularly problematic with Ejiofor, who performs Scar in far more understated fashion. It’s still an entirely menacing performance, but he’s often delivering dialogue made famous by Jeremy Irons, who offered a deliciously campy and flamboyant take on the villain. The same dialogue performed by Ejiofor loses that outrageous and sassy edge that was so genuinely enthralling in the original.

It’s left to Eichner and Rogen to entirely save this film. Their pairing is a stroke of genius, with the two comic talents perfectly playing off each other with spectacular results. It’s clear Disney have allowed them to improvise and play with the film’s script, making their performances the only ones that seem fresh and organic. Yes, they actually deliver new lines and even twist a few classic moments with deft skill. It’s one of the only refreshing elements of this remake, causing it to stand out even further. Their playful banter is a true delight. Their chemistry is stellar. And they elicit genuine laughter throughout, providing some much-needed levity to this flat film.

In a case of just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, The Lion King is an entirely unnecessary piece of cinema. The original is a masterpiece, not just of animated cinema, but cinema in general. By sticking so agonisingly closely to its animated predecessor, this remake provides nothing but nostalgia; something you could already source by popping on your old DVD copy (remember those?) of the Disney classic.

There’s no denying this fancy new version is a technical marvel, but without any semblance of heart and soul, it’s the cinematic equivalent of watching a flashy screensaver for two hours. You’ll be dazzled by the visuals. You’ll be impressed by how far CGI technology has advanced. You’ll be amazed at how they achieved all of this. But, most of all, you’ll just want to go home and watch the original.

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Donald Glover, Seth Rogan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé, James Earl Jones
Director: Jon Favreau
Producers: Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver, Karen Gilchrist
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Hans Zimmer
Production Design: James Chinlund
Editing: Mark Livolsi, Adam Gerstel
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: 17th July 2019 (Australia)

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