ON CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the Pride Lands of Africa, lions rule over the animal kingdom from Pride Rock. Scar, younger brother of King Mufasa, plots to eliminate King Mufasa and his son Simba so he can be king. After failing to bring about Simba’s death when he tricks him and his best friend Nala into exploring a forbidden elephants’ graveyard inhabited by hyenas, he lures Simba into a gorge and has the hyenas drive a large herd of wildebeest into a stampede that will trample him. Mufasa saves Simba but ends up hanging perilously from the gorge’s edge and is sent by Scar to his death. He then convinces Simba that the tragedy was Simba’s own fault and advises him to leave the kingdom and never return….
Up to now, Disney has always preferred some of their own animated films over others. How many releases, whether in cinemas or at home, have the likes of Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King had compared to, for example, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Rescuers. Granted, the first two movies I mentioned are far more popular than the last two, but it does seem that the company decided some time ago which ones are worthwhile and the ones people should like, thereby justifying their decision to ram them down the throats of the populace, while treating some of the others like dirt. I guess they want us to think that the ones they remake as live action [well, photo-realistic should be the proper term] are the great ones, the ones we should all adore, though in addition to the ones they’ve already done and ones currently in production they’ve recently announced Atlantis The Lost Empire, which is the first of the remakes that will be based on a lesser known, less widely loved entry. I said from the very beginning that it would be far more artistically justifiable if the company remade efforts that didn’t quite there [Atlantis and also The Black Cauldron, a goodish but flawed effort, being prime examples], and the rather fine and very different Pete’s Dragon remake proved my point, though of course all it really means now is that Disney, the company that’s on its way to destroying Star Wars, the company whose greed seems to have no bounds, is finally starting to treat all its animated features more equally – with equal disdain, and with equal disrespect for its legacy.
The Lion King is by far the laziest and most pathetic of these remakes so far, showing the creative bankruptcy of Disney at an all time low. If you thought that Beauty And The Beast was little more but a bland cover version, then you may be surprised that The Lion King is even more so. Honestly, about 90% of what you see on screen is from the 1994 movie. Of course The Lion King made such an impact and is still so hugely popular and spoken of that, in terms of creating awareness and getting bums on seats, Disney no doubt feel that they didn’t need to make much of an effort, cynically banking on people’s nostalgia more than anything else. But surely we have a right to expect rather more than a scene by scene, sometimes even bloody shot by shot and word for word, copy? And, while it’s often preferable to take a film more on its own and not refer to much to its predecessor, the copycat nature of The Lion King can’t help but invite constant comparisons, and these comparisons are mostly negative, most moments not coming off nearly as well as they did before. This basically proves two things. The first is that even if you have the most realistic-looking computer animation in the world, some things such as animals talking will never look quite right and are really made for traditional animation. Here, this has resulted in an offering which feels like little more a two hour visual effects reel with some incongruous voice overs. And the second is that in most other respects Disney just didn’t even try, with the hands of director Jon Favreau [who didn’t make a bad job of The Jungle Book and was allowed to be a bit creative on that movie] clearly being tied by a bunch of executives who kept saying to him; “it has to be just like the cartoon, it has to be just like the cartoon”. Favreau was therefore unable to impart any feeling or flavour to his film, nor do much with the very few but pointless and sometimes downright bizarre changes that are made, such as Can You Feel The Love Tonight taking place in bright sunshine. Yes, bright sunlight. That’s probably the perfect example of how bad this film is.
One gets a fair idea of how woeful the thing by the very first scene. King Mufasa’s and Queen Sarabi’s newborn son, Simba, is presented to the gathering animals by Rafiki the mandrill, the kingdom’s shaman and advisor. Mufasa shows Simba the Pride Lands and explains to him the responsibilities of kingship and the “circle of life”, which connects all living things. I’d imagine that everyone reading this has seen the original movie, and thereby remembers what an awe-inspiring beginning the opening sequence is, especially on that first cinema viewing. Well, what do they do here? They copy it almost exactly, just adding the odd extra shot here and here. However, despite having the same wonderful music playing over it, something seems immediately off. These animals don’t really emote. Words may come out of their mouths but there’s no expression in their faces unlike if these creatures were hand animated. Yes, they look just like real animals, one can’t help but admire the detail and the way they move, one is convinced – until they talk. Of course animals don’t talk in real life anyway but they do have expressions, as anyone who’s owned a dog or a cat will know. Maybe it’s just a flaw with computer animation that it can’t achieve this. But it sure hampers emotional involvement in the proceedings – which is something the cartoon version never suffered from. Things proceed generally as expected, including the same songs [though there’s no Morning Report which was added to some DVD versions]. Jokes are sometimes different and less in number, and the hyenas seem more threatening, if not positively freaky looking. The stampede scene is almost exactly re-created, but it doesn’t seem as intense, and we don’t get the heartrending sight of Simba tying to wake his dead father up. I guess first time viewers of the story, especially those of the younger set, may still cry, I don’t know. But there’s certainly a holding back of emotion compared to before, though that’s sadly in common with most of the arts [not just cinema] these days so one shouldn’t perhaps criticise this aspect too much.
There also seems to be an attempt to make things slightly more realistic, but in at least one case it falls terribly flat. We don’t see a cloud-shaped Mustafa in the sky which one can accept, but what’s the damn point of still having flashes of lightning where you can just make out Mustafa? Because the filmmakers couldn’t totally do without such a memorable image from the film, that’s why, so we get an unsatisfying half-and-half thing. But one can only cringe at a full-on Beauty And The Beast reference. At least Timon and Pumba still provide some laughs, though unfortunately I suffer from something I call Rogenitis, meaning that I absolutely can’t stand Seth Rogen and am irritated at the very sound of his voice [and I know I’m not the only one], so Pumba quickly became tiresome for me. Something that I did wonder about while watching the first third was where the extra half hour was going to come from. While most scenes in the first third take slightly longer to play out, the majority of the new stuff comes afterwards, but it’s mostly just little more than familiar scenes taking even longer to play out. That feather being blown around takes forever to get to its destination. Some of these extensions just seem to be there to show off the animation and the photo-real backgrounds, yet parts of the story that are a bit rushed, and which therefore wouldn’t be harmed by some elaboration, aren’t touched. We do get a bit more of Nala [Simba’s mother] and Sarabi [Simba’s mother], and of course as this is 2019 they have to throw in a brief cringey female empowerment bit – plus the climactic battle is a bit longer. But in general they haven’t made the most of the lengthier running time, and for most of the time all it really results in is a movie that’s much slower paced.
The lions tend to have voices that just don’t work, from James Earl Jones’ head scratching return to do Mustafa with far less oomph this time around, to the bored sounding Donald Glover as Simba. Beyonce as Nala gets a stupid moment where she cries “Are you with me lions?” to a bunch of lionesses. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar can’t compare to Jeremy Irons most of the time, but he does do a better job with Be Prepared, which makes it odd that the song is cut short. The Circle Of Life, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and Hakuna Matata are heard in fairly similar arrangements to before and fare okay, though the action during the songs lacks imagination, it’s terribly dull compared to what we saw before. Beyonce absolutely murders Can You Feel The Love Tonight with her runs and pitch changing, and her new Song, Spirit, is just horrible, and terribly placed in the film where it virtually ruins the rousing moment where Simba snaps out of his depression and gallops back to the Pride Lands, previously accompanied by triumphant African music. It’s nice to hear Lebo M do He Lives In You from his album and the Broadway production, but I was just too disheartened by what I’d just watched to stick around and listen to Elton John’s new number. All the songs are too quiet. But Hans Zimmer does a great job with the musical score. His effort in 1994 is one of his best works, and thankfully he doesn’t mess with it too much here. It’s just as well his efforts are still so good, because quite often the music is required to tell us whenever the characters are supposed to be happy or sad or whatever.
Soulless, lifeless and devoid of any emotion in every way., this new version of The Lion King is a complete and utter bust. I wouldn’t even call it particularly great to look at – yes, the animals look real as do the backgrounds, but don’t expect any expressionistic and psychedelic visuals like you got before, and what’s the point in realism when, for example, it’s hard to tell one lion from another? If you want to watch realistic looking African animals in a realistic looking African environment, then there are plenty of nature documentaries around that actually achieve more. In the end, the film it’s really closest to is Gus van Sant’s misguided remake of Psycho. It’s a truly horrible, reprehensible creation from a studio that has become a blight on the cinematic landscape [actually, make that the world landscape] and now doesn’t care less about having any kind of integrity. I haven’t checked, but I’m sure that its opening box office was huge, yet there seems to be something unpleasant in the air [which is separate from my personal hatred of it] about this one because the original is so beloved by many. I do have the feeling that the time will come when these remakes will have gone from most people’s affections and the cartoon versions will remain.