Not a lot of films have found success at the multiplexes this summer with franchise entries like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International crashing and burning at the global box office. What with their iron grip over Marvel (Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home), Pixar (Toy Story 4) and a catalogue of classic animated films like Aladdin and Dumbo ripe for live action remakes at their disposal, Disney has kept their head above flood waters, saving the AMCs and Regals of the world from becoming desolate, sticky wastelands of stale popcorn kernels and cola syrup. Disney is a king of their domain. And that domain is business. And business is good.
Cracking the code of modern cinema-goers and understanding that people just want to see their *stories* play on repeat over and over again until they die, Disney has managed to repackage and resell old products in shiny new packages, leveraging admittedly amazing technical achievement for the sake of get-rich-quick commerce. The Lion King, an impressively frontier-pushing VFX anomaly of directorial prowess (though since it was all created in VR, I’m not even sure the traditional sense of “directing” applies), is by no means an offensive product, nor is it a necessarily bad product. It’s just a commerical product; one whose surface-level artistry is as undeniable as its boundary-pushing technological mastery but one that has no real storytelling or creative integrity to speak of.
Faithful past the point of penitence, Jon Favreau’s take on the 1994 animated Disney musical is a scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, line-for-line, musical-cue-for-musical-cue remake. “Screenwriter” Jeff Nathanson makes a few dialogue changes throughout but the amount of direct quotes airlifted from Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton’s original script will allow for audiences to anticipate no small chunk of not only what will happen plot-wise scene by scene but what will be said line to line. The YouTube record-smashing trailer (which became Disney’s most watched trailer in a 24-hour window 224.6 million views globally) packed no punches selling a familiar product but Favreau’s The Lion King lacks any semblance of a new scene, new element, new character, new plot point, new theme, new anything. It’s Samesville, Africa and if the flavor’s familiar, well get used to it because after this puppy makes a cool billion, you best believe it won’t be the last of its kind.
With a frightfully impressive voice cast that assembles the likes of Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Oliver, Billy Eichner and even brings back the OG Mufasa James Earl Jones, The Lion King has a lion’s share of talent to capitalize on but even that turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. While Beyoncé and Donald Glover are both more than adept at pipe work, much of the rest of the cast buckles under the weight of these massive songs, delivering flat to subpar to entirely awful renditions of Disney golden-era classics like “Hakkuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”. Though his voice work is pleasant as endearing warthog Pumbaa, Seth Rogen stepping behind the mic to sing is an utterly dreadful experience, a flunky and flat cat screech, beyond the repair of autotune. What is more surprising is Ejiofor, who plays Scar with more seriousness than Jeremy Iron’s woebegone snark, who presents an utter lack of talent as a vocalist, his hackneyed take on “Be Prepared” a deadly dull and mostly spoken affair that fails as a spellbinding number.
By and large, the songs are a solid step or two or three below the memorable, singalong-ready majesty of the ’94 cuts and, with the exception of Beyoncé and Glover’s welcome vocal talents belting along to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, most drone on in uninspired manner, making you wish they had just sprung for voice doubles. The grounded “naturalistic documentarian” approach also robs the film’s musical set pieces of the magical visual splendor that make the myriad musical outbursts such a joyous spectacle, instead reducing huge parades of elephants, antelopes and meerkat and choreographed hyeena dance numbers to a cacophony of animals walking around and singing or bystanders looking on somewhat bewildered. By making everything photorealistic and grounded, a good bit of the magic is lost in translation.
This all adds up to a remake that despite its obvious visual accomplishments, just doesn’t deliver the same emotional high points. You just never quite engage with 2019’s The Lion King on the same level because it’s so deeply familar already. Even James Earl Jones’s iconic baritone doesn’t have as much commanding texture and oomph. The 88-year old seems a bit sleepy here, his selfsame lines not quite hitting the same crescendos as they once did, serving to highlight the underlying issues that come with trying to imitate a past performance, and – on a more macro scale – trying to copy your way to success.
As far as 250-million dollar replica goes, The Lion King truly is a visual marvel and brilliant VFX achievement. From the awe-inspiring digital lightning to verdant computer-animated settings to each and every individual lion mane hair, The Lion King looks every penny the billion dollars it’s sure to earn and really pushes the boundaries of reality to a wild breaking point. The fact that none of this was shot with a physical camera, that no motion-capture technology of any sort took place, and that this is essentially the first film to shoot entirely in virtual space makes it a true technological game changer – one that significantly alters the possibilities of the film medium for years and years going forward. Now if only a fraction of that innovation went into taking this story and making it their own, this really could have been king. Instead, it’s roar is little more than a scratchy whimper in perfectly rendered skin.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Lion King’ is a tale of technological wonder and complete and utter creative indifference. A carbon copy from tail to toe that boasts dazzling effects, the film sees innovator Jon Favreau lean on wildly specific storytelling A-Z’s to usher in frighteningly landscape-shifting technology.
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