There’s been a lot of talk surrounding this one, with Disney/nostalgia devotees psyched through the roof and others taking a more critical approach to the film. Not quite live-action, yet not animated, this film attempted to take a stranger approach to the imagery onscreen.
See…this is photo-realism. At least that’s how Jon Favreau and the rest of the filmmakers are describing it. I was quite curious about how this would go down, as animals have a harder time using facial expressions to convey an emotion that a human can connect with. They stood between having their realistic-looking creatures still singing and dancing, which would look kind of ridiculous, or cutting things down to more realistic behavior and losing some of the magic. They opted for the latter option, and while it doesn’t derail this sparkly new update it certainly gives it a noticeable limp.
I’m not recounting the plot of The Lion King. You know it, I know it, we don’t have to waste time it should take to type it. I will call out the cast though because this is a wild one.
*takes a deep breath*
- JD McCrary and Donald Glover as Simba
- Shadahai Wright Joseph and Beyonce Knowles as Nala
- James Earl Jones as Mufasa
- Alfre Woodard as Sarabi
- Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar
- Billy Eichner as Timon
- Seth Rogen as Pumbaa
- John Oliver as Zazu
- John Kani as Rafiki
- Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, and Keegan-Michael Key as the hyenas
Damn, what a cast! I have to say, most do a thoroughly acceptable job with the material they’re given. Some, like John Kani (legendary African playwright and director), have had their roles reduced and that’s disappointing. Some, as can be expected, are doing perfectly serviceable jobs that aren’t bad but definitely aren’t standout either (Glover, Knowles, I’m lookin’ at you). There are some, though, that have taken the original material and elevated it. Big shoutout to Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner for their performance as the swingin’ bachelors with an eye for tasty bugs, because Timon and Pumbaa steal the show. Their performances are proof that this photorealistic take could have worked, as the vocal performances pushed the animators to give them more life than anyone else in the film. They feel expressive, fun, and interesting and it all comes from the base performances from Rogen and Eichner.
Which leads me to my biggest issue with the cast. Look, everyone, we need to talk about the elephant in the room (or lion, if you will). Chiwetel Ejiofor is trying something with his vocal work, but he’s hampered by this dedication to realism that’s entered the stage and it’s completely destructive to Scar as a character. Jeremy Irons played the role by chewing as much of that animated scenery as he could, an absolute ham and cheese sandwich that managed to be all of flamboyant and intimidating. None of that would mesh with this new take, so all of that life and energy had to go. Remember the scene where he’s got Zazu singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” while he plays with a skull and picks his teeth with a bone fragment? Yeah, that’s gone. Or how about “Be Prepared,” the best song in the original film (fight me)? It was originally removed completely, but fan outrage caused them to pop it back in as a…half-assed menacing monologue? I don’t know, I’m sort of enraged over this whole character. They took all the gas out of the tank for him and I don’t think it’s Ejiofor’s fault, he was just working with what he was asked to.
So now let’s touch on what the cast was asked to work with, this whole photo-realism thing. This looks stunning, like a nature documentary. The entire design of the film is both creative and yet lacking in creativity because of the way they’ve shackled themselves to a specific visual style. The vocal performances are doing all of the emotional lifting, which kind of hurts it. I said before that Timon and Pumbaa have the most expressive and excellent characterizations, and that it seemed the animators (or SFX team, whatever) were forced into putting extra life in them because of Rogen and Eichner. I stand by that because I think pretty much everyone else could use the same amount of extra life. Simba and Nala are perfectly adorable as cubs, and when they’re adults I thought, “Yup, that looks like a lion alright,” but there were only moments where I felt real animation to the characters. I’ll say right now, Glover seems more alive when he’s playing with Rogen and Eichner. Perhaps the most lively he gets is during “Hakuna Matata,” where he wants to continue the song and is vocally bouncing around and riffing. The animators couldn’t help but pop a little bounce into his step, something the entire rest of this film needed.
I want to touch on the score but…I just can’t. Snagging Hans Zimmer to do your music (again) should be awesome, but he just recreated the original score. There’s little new here. Honestly, the vocal work in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” are about as interesting as the music gets. Well, that and the moments where the flutes kind of sound like they’re about to launch into “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. That was genuinely baffling.
“Recreation” is actually the perfect way to describe this film because for the most part, it is a shot-for-shot remake, akin to the travesty that was Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (it’s not even worth looking up, just note that he remade it shot-for-shot and somehow botched it). This film isn’t a travesty and I won’t say that it doesn’t feel necessary because the tech here is stunning, as well as the shining moments being truly wonderful. My issue is that it didn’t do much new, and a lot of what it retread wasn’t near as interesting as the original version.
Is this worth your time? Yeah, sure, I think it’s worth a watch. This isn’t something I’ll be popping on to watch regularly, but I’m glad I saw it once. Your kids are going to have fun with it. Hell, you might have fun with it (I laughed at points, even welled up at that moment). But was this truly worth it? That’s a larger conversation about Disney updating all their animation to live-action, and that’s a conversation for later. For now, if you like and you’ve got a couple hours to kill, The Lion King is playing everywhere.