Dir: Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, and James Earl Jones
W.C. Fields famously quoted about the filmmaking process, “Never work with children or animals”.
There was a moment a few years ago, while watching a young filmmaker work on getting a cat to walk through a dog door, when these words haunted a production set for 2 hours. After numerous requests, which very quickly became pleas, of “cut” and “action” the director asked if there was any way to make a digital cat for the scene.
One week later, director Jon Favreau released the photorealistic digital remake of the beloved 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book”; a visual feast of the advancements in technology that made a jungle full of animals come to life like a nature documentary. With a star-studded group of voice actors, this new rendition of “The Jungle Book” was the spark that opened up the possibilities of Disney Studios revisiting more than just their human focused stories.
“The Lion King”, the 1994 landmark cartoon that changed the trajectory of Disney’s animation studios, is the newest past property to be reimagined through photorealistic strokes of digital artistry. The result is a technical marvel without much dramatic spirit, an absolutely beautiful painting that struggles consistently with adding emotional touchstones to its flawless digital rendering.
From the opening sequence, the breathtaking progression through the Pride Lands as baby Simba is introduced to the world, the amazing digital wizardry is immediately on full scale display. Nearly every character, landscape, and motion from the original animated film is mirrored with such meticulous care and constructed in such high definition clarity that you won’t realize you are smiling until you realize that you already started singing “Circle of Life”. It’s a gorgeous technological feat.
As the film progresses into the heft of the narrative, with its Shakespearean-esque cues and sing-a-long musical numbers, the technology remains impressive but the emotional components of these characters get lost in all the realistic animal composition. The flexibility of standard animation, which allows moments to compose backgrounds for atmospheric effect and exaggerate features for heightened reactions, assist in making Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) death so tragic and allowing Scar’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murderous deeds to feel so threatening.
What this new film does is craft what looks like a Disneynature film; with such fine-tuned character compositions, Simba’s (JD McCrary) playfulness while singing “Just Can’t Wait to be King” seems dulled and at times oddly structured. Scar and the Hyenas appear so visually threatening on first introduction, with glowing eyes and sinister stalking motions, but they lose that edge the moment they sing or clumsily tumble into one another during altercations with the lions.
It doesn’t help that the film is trying so hard to be a shot-for-shot remake of the original cartoon. In the same way that the threat, thrill, and tension was lost in director Gus Van Sant’s recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, the heart, humor, and harmony of this updated version of “The Lion King” also feels lessened by its need to match scenes and emotions from the original.
There are few moments when the joy and pleasure of the original take over, especially when Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) are on screen discussing slimy cuisine and singing about their life motto or when the formal Zazu (John Oliver) is flying around providing morning reports.
The talented voice actors throughout the film all have opportunities to shine but it never lasts too long. Beyoncé voices older Nala and sings exceptionally well, Donald Glover plays older Simba and offers a maturity that feels somewhat timid with hints of kingly confidence, and James Earl Jones brings all the gravitas, almost exactly so, from the original performance.
“The Lion King” is very often a beautiful experiment of how precisely detailed and richly composed technology can make an artificial world resemble the real thing. Unfortunately, it’s still a few steps away from providing this recreated film with the heart and soul found so affectionately in traditional methods of animation that made the 90’s version of this film such a classic.
2.50 out of 5.00