Back in the early days of computer gaming, companies would often test new gameplay features by releasing demo versions of a level or two from an upcoming game. New lighting, graphical upgrades, weaponry: You’d get the demo for free, and it would be satisfying for about an hour. Whatever was added served as an extra something special built on the foundation of the familiar. It left you intrigued for what comes next.
The Lion King is basically a demo for new technology that isn’t quite ready to shoulder the burden of a new story yet. Thus, it acts as a graphical upgrade attached to something so familiar that it feels strange when it doesn’t match the classic 1994 animated film beat for beat.
But watching a two-hour tech demo is much different than playing one for an hour or so, and The Lion King fails to really feel like a worthwhile investment of time versus the original. None of the additions — which really just boil down to a single song to showcase Beyonce — make up for the poorly adapted classics like “Be Prepared” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” The former is a complete trainwreck; the latter is well-sung but visually disorienting, as it feels like a song placed over some poorly shot nature footage. There is little dynamism to anything happening. Even the African savannah, which should be gorgeous, feels gray and lifeless most of the time.
Still, when the new CGI works, it really works — mostly when characters aren’t speaking or moving. Eventually it may well amount to something. The cameras reportedly allowed director Jon Favreau to visualize CGI characters while filming real nature plates, which could be used to insert CGI beings into real-time dramatic situations. That’s cool nuts-and-bolts stuff. In the future, The Lion King may be viewed as a benchmark in moviemaking history, but as a cinematic experience it pales in comparison to the original version. Were it not for Dumbo, it would be the nadir of the live-action Disney remake trend.
As such, the special features are actually more interesting than the actual film. Jon Favreau’s passion for the project is on display in “Perfecting the Pride,” which follows his team to Africa to research their animal stars. He also provides an informative audio commentary. There are additional documentary pieces about the music of The Lion King and the legacy of the original picture, as well as music videos and the ability to individually move from song to song.