The Lion King

The Lion King ★½

Rarely is the context to a film's very existence as meaningful as it is here. The fundamental debate here, I think, isn't the ceaselessly greedy and admittedly genius strategy of remaking these animated classics for modern audiences. This has been considered since Favreau's Jungle Book. Here, I think the issue lies in the apparently profound difference between special effects and animation. This remake prioritizes realism above all; functioning like a Planet Earth documentary with music and a story. The lions are absurdly inexpressive; if you muted the audio there would be no way of telling if Simba was telling a joke or mourning his father's death. Their faces are vacant, any and all emoting is expressed through voices alone; which feel wildly unnatural without corresponding facial movements to sell whatever it is that is being conveyed. Favreau's obsession with these animals looking and acting completely realistically sucks all the joy, sorrow or power out of all the music numbers. Amusingly, Timon and Pumba's brief "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was the only musical sequence worth a damn, because they were actually allowed to dance. It's incredible how refreshing their little bouncing and swaying is when viewed within such a lifeless film.

And the issues don't stop there. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?", one of the great swooning and romantic tunes you'll hear, is cold and puzzlingly filmed under the blistering African sun in the daytime. Mufasa's infamously heart-wrenching death plays remarkably blandly, even for a softy like me. Scar's "Be Prepared" is stripped of the infamous Nazi imagery, and the character himself is reduced from Jeremy Iron's conniving, slippery and delightfully dramatic villainous snake to just an angry lion. Most disappointing was Favreau ret-conning the most meaningful, grandly metaphorical piece of this film. Mufasa's face in the clouds looking down on a lost Simba remains an iconic, masterful image; a triumph of animation. But even in Simba's quest to find himself and his purpose, Favreau opts for realism; vaguely outlining a face in a large storm cloud. Sure, the music swells and there's still some power in the narrative itself. But why remake this if you're just going to shave down it's most brilliant features?

The original Lion King remains a triumph of myth-making; there's a lasting, universal and potent power to it's enormously simple story. Locations project power and atmosphere. The night sky is a haven for self-discovery and magic. It's epic and powerful and grandly emotional; every song and sequence feels immediately iconic. The canyon that became Mufasa's grave was apocalyptic and harrowing. Timon & Pumba's jungle was joyous and colorful. Simba and Nala's romantic number displayed an innocent and moving mutual infatuation; you could feel them falling in love. Scar's takeover of the hyena's was hellish and intimidating; the Nazi imagery was incisive and we were convinced of Scar's villainy immediately as fire billowed behind him and shadows conveyed an enormity his personality suggested. My point is that animation isn't just drawings and depiction; it's a means to express emotion through world-building, motion and honest-to-god artistic talent. Sure, there's a technical achievement here to appreciate. I just wish that it was couched within a meaningful work of art, rather than a wildly unnecessary literalization of a film that thrives entirely outside of it's nuts-and-bolts good vs evil narrative. The myth and power the original projected wasn't born out of the script, rather in the art and music. Animation is a fundamentally different medium than live-action (or photo-realism). This is just flat and uninspired; which is utter blasphemy in the shadow of the original.

write-up on the original Lion King
2019 Ranked

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