**1/2 out of ****
(for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements)
Released: June 19, 2019
Runtime: 118 minutes
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, JD McCrary, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Shahadi Wright Joseph
It’s the movie you love – now visually drab and lethargically paced!
Delivering exactly the beat-for-beat remake we were sold but a half-hour longer, this new “live action” version of The Lion King is as an impressive achievement that’s also depressing by its very existence, a.k.a. the equivalent of a feature-length deepfake.
On one hand, the groundbreaking photo-real technology behind this two-hour visual effect (nothing here is real) dramatically pushes and expands the possibilities of the medium forward. On the other hand, this torpid cash-grab re-interpretation of a beloved classic is cynically regressive, a nostalgic pop culture pander that, despite the aesthetic mastery on display, isn’t remotely artful.
Taking a literalistic nature documentary approach, director Jon Favreau builds off the VFX he helped to pioneer in Disney’s recent remake of The Jungle Book. Yet unlike that breakthrough (which took the basic premise of the previous version but then did it’s own thing with it), The Lion King of 2019 is creatively stifled, a cover version in nearly every respect. There’s only one saving grace in this blockbuster bloat, something that hints at what could’ve (and should’ve) been but wasn’t. I’ll get to that in a bit.
At some level it’s hard to blame Favreau or any of his collaborators for this high tech regurgitation because everything here reeks of corporate mandate. The Disney Monopoly Overlords handed Favreau the most advanced digital tools in the kingdom but then required him to stay in an extremely narrow lane. The Shareholders have overtaken the Pridelands, it seems, feeding on the carcass of their most successful 1990s renaissance musical like a pack of hyenas.
You’ve seen this movie countless times before, just not in this way. Working best as a compare-and-contrast curioso with the 1994 original but much less as a dynamic entertainment or artistic vision of its own (see the Broadway version for that), The Lion King is slavishly beholden to the animated epic released 25 years ago, often literally following it shot-for-shot. The result is an interesting technical exercise that never becomes a thrilling emotional experience.
Even within these very limited corporate dictates, however, Favreau makes some odd directorial choices. The main head-scratcher is how bland the film’s palette is. Yes, to some degree, nature’s color tones blend and camouflage together, but the Planet Earth documentary series is able to make a comparable habitat visually pop in a way these images never do.
The distinction between the lush Pridelands and desolate elephant graveyard doesn’t contrast as vibrantly as it should. Then compare this to the animated original (which is inevitable; the whole approach begs it, right down to recasting James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa) and the difference is a devastating indictment of how this remake was made, its lone virtue a newfound appreciation for the original’s true artistry, one that transcended misperceptions of Disney films being “big budget cartoons.”
This difference is evident throughout, perhaps most dramatically in the two early musical numbers “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “Be Prepared.” Both have devolved from their abstract choreographed glory to just animals roaming and singing (with Scar primarily speaking his egregiously downsized number, one that has become an ominous shell of its former totalitarian spectacle).
Making matters worse is how the whole story plods along. The film’s additional thirty minutes is comprised more by laborious pacing than by new additions (which are brief, scattershot, and only marginally interesting). The thing drags, which compounds the film’s carbon-copy familiarity. You know exactly where this is going but it takes even longer to get there.
Many of the vocal performances are as deliberate as the narrative tempo, as if Favreau thinks he and his cast need to spell out the plot’s turns and themes, details we already know like the back of our hands (and aren’t hard to grasp to begin with).
The casting choices are mostly smart if also handcuffed, although Donald Glover (despite his proliferative multi-hyphenate talents) completely lacks the necessary vocal authority to make the adult Simba (and heir to Mufasa) convincing – like, say, an Anthony Mackie or Chadwick Boseman could – although I’ve always had the same qualm about Matthew Broderick, too. Chiwetel Ejiofor also underwhelms as Scar; he’s absent the delicious, intimidating villainy of Jeremy Irons, but again one suspects he was reined in toward some miscalculated goal of “realism.”
That one saving grace? Well, there’s two: Timon and Pumba. Arriving halfway through and literally saving the entire venture in the process, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are given (and absolutely run with) a creative license that the film is starving for. Everything else in this digital rehash needed the freedom they were allowed.
In what must have been a combination of scripted and improvised banter, Eichner and Rogen embody what the movie’s whole ethos should’ve been: stay true to the baseline conceptual core but then make it your own. They do, in hilarious, liberating fashion. They’re scene-stealers of a movie where it’s all-too-easy to be one.
Viewers will be amazed; it’s hard not to be, given the deceptive detail (down to the nuances of movement) that effects artists can now conjure. In fact, if one sequence is compelling in its own right (regardless of what it’s mirroring) it’s the climactic battle between Simba and Scar. Seeing those beasts brawl against a fiery backdrop captures the Circle of Life at its most primal.
Look, I get why Disney takes such a risk-averse approach to their most beloved 90s era classics. For as assembly-line dull as it is (in this, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast), playing it safe is a smaller gamble than possibly “ruining the childhoods” of the Gen-X and Millennial adults who see their generations’ pop culture icons as sacrosanct, and who demand their nostalgia reboots to not deviate from the established canon.
Even so, it would’ve been nice if Disney would have at least had the courage to add an addition from the proven and also-beloved Broadway success, namely the song “He Lives In You” (which is heard only during the end credits, in African language). It’s the most spiritual moment of any Lion King incarnation. Alas, the spirit of that song does not have a place in this remake’s soul (such as it is).
Bottom line: the VFX advancements are reason enough to see this Lion King, especially on a big screen, but Eichner and Rogen’s Timon & Pumba will be the only reason you enjoy it. They also provide the only rationale for ever choosing to watch this again over the 1994 masterpiece.