The Lion King
Never did I expect that I would prefer Guy Ritchie’s take on Aladdin over Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, and yet here we are. I am afraid to report that this live action remake is closer in nature to Tim Burton’s Dumbo than the game changer it could have been. Watching this film was like being a shrew caught in between two hyenas trying to feast on me. I’m torn one way, and pulled another, all while savouring the slight moments of hope when both predators drop me for a split second. This film comes after Favreau’s fantastic The Jungle Book adaptation, which deviates a considerable amount from the original animated film in terms of tone. The one gaff is Christopher Walken’s gigantopithecus singing a song. It’s an awkward moment that does not fit, it’s uncomfortable watching a creature sing this kind of song, and it feels silly compared to the gritty moments throughout the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, The Lion King is full of these kinds of moments. If it was similar to the original animated film, that’s fine. The animated film is probably my all time favourite Disney feature. The fact that this rendition chooses to go shot-for-shot identical with the original in some sequences is a major problem in so many ways. It’s bad if you compare the two films: it becomes a major distraction as to how precisely exact some scenes are, to the point you can swear they ripped the audio of the original film and pasted it here (they didn’t, but you can lie to someone and say that; they wouldn’t know the difference). But comparing two films does not make a film necessarily worse, you may say. That is true. So, let’s focus on this one. As the original’s shots were orchestrated for an animated feature, having the exact same shots here is mind boggling. A major example is the buffalo stampede. The “deed’ happens (it’s 2019, but I still won’t spoil), and the “camera” zooms out of Simba’s screaming face. In the animated film, this is a dramatic moment. Here, it almost looks stupidly goofy. This was choreographed to work with hand drawn caricatures of animals, not CGI’d hyper realistic beasts. It’s almost hilarious, during the most depressing part of the film.
Going back to the Walken number, the musical tunes in this film simply do not work. The songs are fine, and the singers do a great job of bringing life into the melodies we grew up on. Seeing these songs applied to National Geographic-esque imagery is not a marriage that was meant to work. The animated film has dramatic art styles (remember the colours in “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, or the fire during “Be Prepared”). Here, Favreau tries his best to work with what he has. Young Simba and Nala sprint through flamingo flocks and past a family of giraffes. It’s an honest effort, but it becomes forgettable. It almost feels like toys are singing these songs, and they’re being orchestrated by kids that had just seen the original in the backseat of the car on the way home. It isn’t a good look.
What bothers me the most are the signs of brilliance here. Let’s quickly discuss the special effects. They’re as amazing as everyone says. One thing was guaranteed after The Jungle Book: these animals were going to be life like. Favreau and the same special effects team even bump the lamp (an expression derived from a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit used to describe going the extra mile). Wind blows through Mufasa’s mane, and it’s so real. Paws push sand and dirt away as lions trot through different landscapes. I highly recommend this film just from its visuals alone: just understand what you’re signing up for. Now, for the scenes that actually work. The opening (the “Circle of Life”) is fine to be shot-by-shot identical with the original, because there is no talking. There is only imagery. It is unreal to witness.
I almost wish the crew went too-bold and made this a no-dialogue feature that just had animals in the wild experiencing the ebbs and flows of wildlife. We wouldn’t have the amazing cast, but it would have been an achievement in narrative. If not that, the Shakespearean approach (after all, this is basically Disney’s tamer Hamlet) works just as well. We see the serious scenes where Simba assumes his future duties, or Simba interacting with his evil uncle (Scar). All of these parts work. I wish the film was more like this.
Instead, make way for impersonations of the literal same lines of the original. Some scenes have new content, but they’re mostly divided between the comedic relief parts. Otherwise, most of The Lion King is so reliant on the original film, it becomes a taxidermized lion rather than the return of the triumphant king. This means the repeated jokes also fall flat. When Pumbaa farts, it’s a “hah-hah” eye roll moment. When Seth Rogan riffs, it’s refreshing. If they’re going to have comedic relief, may as well have some new shticks. Even the Genie in the new Aladdin was more unique. Don’t even get me started on the audacity of Timon and Pumbaa singing “Be Our Guest” as a joke: I get that Timon dressing up as Carmen Miranda wouldn’t work in this film, but this joke was even more painful.
I want to love this film. I truly do. I love the cast. Donald Glover is a fantastic Simba. Beyoncé actually is a nice fit for Nala. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an absolutely sensational Scar (outside of the not-so-hot “Be Prepared” rendition). One grip on the original I welcome is James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa, but that’s also because it showed glimpses of the film that could have been. Hearing him fight with Ejiofor just works. This could have been a serious, theatre-like adaptation that harkens the story to a tragic play. Instead, we get a film where Favreau and company didn’t know what to do. Do they just redo the original as is, or do they make it an uncannily realistic portrayal of a beloved story? They went with both, and we get a carcass of a film. I wanted to toss the original on, but I also wanted to stay to watch the visual feast. This one hurts, folks. It just isn’t that good.
At least we had Florence Kasumba as a head hyena, and Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre as two dimwitted hench-enas (who would have imagined Andre would even be allowed anywhere near a Disney studio, let alone be in their most coveted live action film?). I’ll gladly watch a spinoff with these three just doing hyena things.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.