“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
When Jeff Goldblum spoke these words back in 1993, he was calling out the greedy nerds who decided to fill a theme park with a bunch of cloned T-Rexes. That prophetic statement came to mind more than once as I watched 2019’s The Lion King — a film packed with computer effects so stunning they wouldn’t have been possible five years ago but which lack the emotional weight and majesty that made the 1994 original an indelible success. This is the third live-action remake released by Disney this year and perhaps the most damning indicator of how artistically bankrupt these adaptations are at their core.
There’s little value recapping the characters or premise of director Jon Favreau’s The Lion King. You know all that. In fact, many people will enjoy this new iteration simply for retelling a story they know by heart, and almost precisely in the way they remember. They won’t find it unsettling when lifelike animals slaughter one another in a movie aimed toward infants or consider how strange it looks when Seth Rogen’s laugh erupts out of a photorealistic warthog. They may not even miss the vibrant colors and lively animation from the original musical sequences, recalling now instead an episode of Planet Earth they saw one time, while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” blares over scenes of a computer-generated Simba and Nala wrestling in a grassy plain.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with finding pleasure in nostalgia. I’m frequently guilty of the same. Still, this Lion King’s greatest sin is a fundamental misunderstanding of why the first film is beloved to begin with. Animation allows filmmakers to show audiences sights live-action cannot. It’s a medium where, say, a talking lion can be voiced by Ferris Bueller and display just as much charisma. On the other hand, say you now have the technology to create a lion that resembles one found in the African wilderness. I mean, the resemblance is uncanny: It doesn’t grin when it’s overjoyed or pout when it has to mourn the death of its father like some silly cartoon. This feels real. That caliber of visual effect, with such a sheer level of detail, is unquestionably impressive at first — particularly the opening “Circle of Life” sequence, as the camera pans over a remarkable African vista and its gorgeously realized animal inhabitants. The scene works on the power of its images alone.
Once those animals begin speaking, and the plot kicks into gear, the film’s melding of singing / dialogue and convincing visuals becomes its undoing. The voice cast assembled by Disney is ridiculously stacked: Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, John Oliver as Zazu, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa … well, you get it. The studio gathered the most talented entertainers in the world and cast them in pitch-perfect roles, into which each performer put every ounce of his or her talent. Tragically, that vocal work is quickly overwhelmed once it emits from an animal so realistic in appearance it might as well have walked out of a nature documentary. It’s oddly unconvincing and makes one yearn for the expressiveness found in hand-drawn animation.
Unlike the majority of this movie’s target audience, I don’t hold any lasting affection for the original or any of Disney’s animated classics, for that matter, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I’d maybe regard this new Lion King with less cynicism if Disney hadn’t declared these lazy remakes their modus operandi. As the world’s largest provider of entertainment, their commitment to producing shot-for-shot recreations of earlier, superior films is a depressing waste of resources — especially from a studio responsible for some of the most thrilling animated features of all time. On the bright side, however, Best Buy employees will soon have an impressive visual-effects reel to forever play on mute in the 4K TV aisle. So I guess it’s not all bad.