The Lion King – Art Imitating Art

If you’re a Disney investor, congratulations on the wonderful year. The omnipresent entertainment conglomerate is in the midst of the most financially dominant year in film history, and the good times will keep rolling for Mickey as The Lion King is here to shatter box office records. A remake of the classic 1994 film, this King ISN’T live action, but you’ll also be smited if you refer to it as animation. Whatever weird classification you want to give this film, it is essentially a CGI version of a nature documentary. But like many things, as we’ll get to, The Lion King is but a hollow projection of that more soulful and arresting point of reference.

For the uninitiated (read: those who haven’t seen the original film a dozen times or weren’t old enough to experience the peak of it’s pop cultural osmosis) The Lion King tells the tale of a young lion cub named Simba, son to King Mufasa and heir to the throne. Simba is brass and overconfident, a tragic flaw exacerbated by the vengeful scheming of his uncle, Scar, who feels that HE would make the best ruler of the pride. To say any further would be redundant to those who already know the tale and spoilerific for those experiencing this for the first time.

But make no mistake, if you’ve seen the original then you’ve already seen this movie. For all the questions on whether director Jon Favreau had made a shot for shot remake – this is essentially a shot for shot remake. This is Gus Van Sant’s Lion King. This in itself, while lazy, wouldn’t be without entertainment value if it wasn’t for two major problems – the visuals and the voice cast.

Visually, the remake is an impressive showing of CG effects, reportedly rendered within a virtual landscape. This is certainly a breakthrough in technology, but it’s a breakthrough that promises feats of visual splendor in future films rather than what is accomplished here. The film’s design is too monochromatic to be a worthy tribute to it’s predecessor. This doesn’t look like the Africa from the original, and it doesn’t even look like the Africa from all of the great, colorful nature documentaries that this film likely drew inspiration from. This lessons the impact of the intended juxtaposition between the beauty of the land in the opening act and the destitution of the third act; it looks like the same grim setting, except the 3rd act has more clouds.

In addition, the lions themselves, with the exception of Scar, lack unique visual features. In one critical scene, an adult Simba is forced to look into a body of water as he’s told he’ll find his father there. What starts as Simba’s reflection in the water slowly morphs into an image of Mufasa – and hell if I know if I can tell any differences between the two lions. The only reason we KNOW the image has changed and we’re now looking at Mufasa is because we’ve seen this exact scene in the original. That in a nutshell encapsulates the issue of whether this new technology actually succeeds in telling the story well – it doesn’t.

But it would all be forgiven if it seemed like the voice cast actually gave a shit. There are some standouts, which I’ll point out soon, but there are key players here that are sleep walking and getting by on their name recognition. Donald Glover, who voices the adult Simba, is totally ill-equipped to give Simba’s journey of grief and regret the angsty power it deserves. Instead, he spouts lines like “I am Simba, son of Mufasa” with the enthusiasm of scheduling a dental appointment; it’s not a great line even on paper, but at least try to make it work. Beyonce is a total misfire as Nala, Simba’s love interest, as nothing she says has any conviction. It’s as if the day of recording was the first time she saw the script.

Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers the most puzzling performance as he’s not necessarily the worst one here, but he’s wildly inconsistent. While his Scar is more melancholy than Jeremy Irons’ performance, which almost succeeds early on in drawing some empathy, too many of his lines are flatly delivered. He delivers Scar’s most iconic line, spoken to Mufasa, with the weird take that doesn’t seem sure of what it’s aiming for while simultaneously missing the point of the line’s intentional irony. I’m not saying he has to have the same cadence and inflections that Irons had; I’m saying I dont understand how the delivery of some of these lines could even be considered good in a vacuum.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are basically carrying the second half of the film as Simba’s carefree pals Timon and Pumbaa. The duo is so perfectly cast, with Eichner in particular delivering by far the best performance of the film. I imagine that most people will consider their portrayals as the one thing that is on par with the original. That list is alarmingly, but not surprisingly short.

If there’s one value to be had about this remake, it’s what we could possibly learn about the varying ways a story can be told while achieving vastly different results. The Lion King is telling the Exact Same Story as 1994’s The Lion King, but the latter film is vastly superior. The content of your story determines whether it’s worth telling, but the execution of said story will determine if I feel anything as a viewer. 1994 film is one of the most emotionally resonant films in Disney’s catalogue. This new film makes me feel nothing besides disappointment and cynicism.

This is the zombie Lion King, a film that feels so passionless that character driven scenes go by too quickly so you’re never given a chance to connect with anyone’s perspective. The film is longer, and feels longer, than it’s predecessor yet individual scenes strangely feel shorter and rushed. Whether it’s a character distraught over the death of a loved one, or two characters reconnecting after years apart, these moments are never allowed to breathe. They’re just here to remind us of the same scene from a better movie, one that actually made us invested in those moments.

The Lion King is a terrific story on paper, one worthy of comparison to Hamlet or The Exodus. But just like those stories, you can’t just throw money at a famous tale and hope it resonates because it will not. This film highlights just how difficult the original was to pull off, by falling so short. The remake is using the original as short-hand to pick up all of the slack. A lazily delivered line here, a poorly conveyed theme there; it’s all OK because you’ve seen the original, so you know what the filmmakers were going for! That’s the dark side of art imitating art – at some point there is no art, just a succession of references. This is no King, this is cosplay.

The remake is using the original as short-hand to pick up all of the slack. A lazily delivered line here, a poorly conveyed theme there; it’s all ok because you’ve seen the original, so you know what the filmmakers were going for! That’s the dark side of art imitating art – at some point there is no art, just a succession of references.

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