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Non-Review Review: The Lion King (2019)

It’s a very strange comparison to make, but the film that most obviously comes to mind when watching Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is Gus Van Sant’s infamous nineties remake of Psycho.

This is Favreau’s second “live action” adaptation of a classic Disney animated film, even if that descriptor is somewhat misleading. It might be more accurate to describe The Lion King (which was shot entirely in virtual reality) as “verisimilitudinous.” It is designed to approximate “live action”, rather than being live action itself. On that note, the film is a technical triumph. On the level of pure craft, The Lion King is a staggering accomplishment. It is a virtual reality film that is in many ways indistinguishable from reality itself. However, the onion has even more layers to it. It is a virtual reality film approximating the reality while meticulously and faithful reproducing a beloved animated film.

Join the cub.

As such, and much like Van Sant’s Psycho, there is an element of reflexive postmodernism to The Lion King. Both the Psycho and Lion King remakes feel more like conceptual art installations than movies in their own right. They are certainly more interesting as abstract objects than as actual stories. After all, the stories in question were so closely wedded to form and context the first time around that the idea of remaking them so literally and so faithfully seems absurd from a creative point of view. As such, the process of replication becomes intriguing of itself. Both Psycho and The Lion King are incredibly faithful copies that consciously lean into their uncanniness.

Favreau’s Lion King looks beautiful, but largely feels like a limit case. It is a certain approach to modern filmmaking taken to – and perhaps pushed beyond – its farthest extreme.

Pride of the Pridelands.

The Lion King is an uncanny simulacra in more than just its visuals. It seems like a warped reflection of the film that it is mimicking down to the cellular level. This is obvious from the opening shots. The “cold open” to the original Lion King is one of the most iconic openings in nineties cinema; herds of animals assembling in order to watch the announcement of the birth of Simba. It would be impossible to remake The Lion King without including that sequence. It isn’t just iconic, it is very effective. It skillfully establishes the world of the movie and thematically sets up ideas that will play across the film’s run time. Incorporating that scene makes sense.

However, Favreau does more than just incorporate that scene. He recreates it, almost shot-for-shot. Even viewers who have not watched The Lion King in years will recognise individual shots as they are repurposed and reused. The most striking shot in the sequence in the ants marching on a tree branch before the camera refocuses to capture the wildebeest in the background of the frame. This was a remarkable shot in an animated film because it employed unusual cinematic language for a cartoon; animated films do not have lenses or cameras, so they do not work like live action films. That shot was so striking because it applied a live action technique to hand-drawn animation.

The Scars run deep.

The scene seems strange when transferred from animation into something approximating live action, if only because the shot becomes a lot less impressive within a context where that sort of camera movement and manipulation is both commonplace and expected. There is a surreal quality to it, like watching somebody try to take a photograph inspired by a rotoscoped image. There is something “off” about it in a way that is hard to properly register or quantify. It very immediately and effectively establishes just how faithful Favreau is going to be in remaking The Lion King. He is not just lifting plot beats or even particularly striking images. He is incorporating as much as he can.

Similarly, the first scene between Simba and Scar carries over a lot of the dialogue word-for-word. There is a slight shift from “you’re so weird” to “that’ll be so weird” on Simba’s part, but the line still exists to set up the response “you have no idea” from Scar. In the original Lion King, this was an in-joke referencing actor Jeremy Irons’ delivery of the line in Reversal of Fortune. However, the line holds no such weight for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. The result is disorienting, a faithful homage to an in-joke that applies to the actor who previously played this role rather than tailoring it specifically to the actor playing the part this time around.

Taking the lion’s share of the fun out of it.

For somebody familiar with The Lion King, this level of fidelity can be uncomfortable. Favreau quotes heavily from the original, but in a different cinematic language. There is an awkwardness in this, as Favreau preserves even the smallest lines of dialogue and even particular scene transitions and montages. There is a paradoxical effect in all of this. The harder that The Lion King tries to faithfully recreate its source material, the more forcefully it remind the audience that this can never actually recreate the original. The attempt to push the remake closer to the original ironically has a distancing effect on the audience.

That’s not to suggest that there aren’t differences between the animated film and the remake. As with the other live action adaptations of these classic animated films, there are forty extra minutes to fill. Of course, this is completely unnecessary; the original animated Lion King was perfectly designed to fill its run time. Very few audience members felt that something was missing from the film, and certainly not anything amounting to another half of the film’s run time. Nevertheless, the live action adaptations of these animated classics inevitably have to bulk up the run time, most likely because modern audiences have been conditioned to expect that a “real” movie lasts two hours.

The Simbas of the father.

This is an interesting prism through which to examine these films. In each case, there is something interesting and revealing in the choices made about how best to extend that run time. In the case of The Lion King, the forty extra minutes aren’t additive like in Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. They don’t add major new details to the story, or appreciably bulk up certain aspects of the original narrative. The additions in The Lion King are incidental. In fact, they seem consciously designed so that the casual audience member wouldn’t even notice them. They are the cinematic equivalent of white noise.

Occasionally a line or two is added to an existing scene in order to draw it out. Notably, for example, Zazu’s morning report maintains a lot of the exact same wordplay as the original film – “cheetahs never prosper”, for example. However, the sequence also inserts another joke about “birds tweeting at four in the morning.” It allows The Lion King to have its cake and eat it, to add little modern trappings to existing scenes without having to make any replacements or revisions. There are a number of small sequences like this, such as closing out the musical rendition of Hakuna Matata with Pumba ironically remarking that – due to montage – they’ve been singing it for years.

Hannibal’s meal presentations grew increasingly elaborate and uncanny.

Similarly, a lot of the additions simply bulk the beginning and end of particular scenes, or offer an unnecessary explanation of how a character got from one scene to another when that was never an issue in the original. To pick a few examples, additions include:  Mufasa walking with Simba to the “everything the light touches…” speech atop the rock instead of cutting directly to it, a sequence of Nala escaping Pride Rock before she finds Simba and sings Can You Feel The Love Tonight?, and Timon and Pumba turning The Lion Sleeps Tonight into a bigger musical number. None of these decisions stand out on their own, but in total they rapidly extend the film’s run time.

Other choices feel more cynical and calculated. There is a lot more attention paid to kingdoms and politics in Favreau’s Lion King, but only in an abstract manner. The film consciously avoids anything that might overtly play as a political commentary on the modern world, even trimming the Nazi imagery from the showstopping Be Prepared. In fact, The Lion King notably and repeatedly softens the animated film’s rough edges. The remake of The Lion King subtly invests a lot of energy in proving Mufasa is “a good king.” He insists that Scar will always have a place at Pride Rock as a gesture of magnanimity, and insists to Simba that monarchy is a serious responsibility.

Everybody knows about the bird.

To reach the target run time, the script to The Lion King is layered with unnecessary details that serve to more firmly establish the systemic structures of the wilderness in which the film is set. The hyenas are no long mere scavengers, instead a rival centralised government with their own kingdom threatening “war” against Mufasa who has worked hard to ensure “peace.” Timon and Pumbaa are no longer anarchistic nomads, but live in their own separate kingdom which has its own inhabitants and expectations. This feels like the faint influence of Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm on the familiar Disney template. Twenty-five years later, the winds in the Pridelands seem to whisper, “Worldbuilding.”

Along those lines, the climax goes out of its way to give Nala the sort of cynical and lazy “girl power” moment typified by Avengers: Endgame. Nala is given a mini-boss that she can fight at the climax of the film so that the film’s denouement no longer belongs to Simba alone. Again, in theory, this is not a bad thing. Nala could do with some development. However, in practice, a transparent and pandering effort to disguise the fact that the film has no interest in its female characters. It would be easy to actually develop Nala’s character, but the film is unwilling to meaningfully deviate from the template story, so a small tokenistic gesture is as much as the movie will permit.

Held up as an example.

This gets at an interesting facet of these changes. These forty minutes that are added are consciously not new things, even by the modest standards of these adaptations. There is nothing in The Lion King that serves a similar purpose to the emphasis on Belle’s mother in Beauty and the Beast, or the extra time given over to Jafar’s back story and Jasmine’s “I Want” song in Aladdin. Of course, those additions didn’t really work either, in large part because they felt awkwardly bolted on to stories that had already been mercilessly pared down and so didn’t need that sort of connective tissue added.

However, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin at least asked the question of what a longer version of the story should hypothetically look like. The production team attempted to recognise gaps in the narrative that could be filled – whether they needed to be or not. Sometimes the logic was bad; the emphasis on Belle’s mother feels completely disconnected to anything else in Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes the logic was sound and impulse was good, even if the execution was lacking; Jasmine and Jafar were horrible under-developed in the original animated film, but trying to flesh out their roles required a more fundamental reworking of the plot than Aladdin would allow.

On top of the world.

In contrast, the forty minutes added on to The Lion King are designed to just… be there. Not to distract. More than other live action adaptations – including Beauty and the Beast – the point of this version of The Lion King is how faithfully it recreates the original. Individual shots are copied almost perfectly, scenic compositions are imported wholesale, line deliveries are often copied note-for-note. Although it is apparent that The Lion King brought James Earl Jones back to reprise the role of Mufasa, if only because of the little additions, it often feels like the production team would have been happier just to loop the soundtrack from the original nineties cartoon.

On a technical level, it’s astounding. It is revealing that many of the smaller changes within scenes seem to be concessions to photorealism, such as Simba seizing Scar’s mane to leverage himself back on to Pride Rock instead of making a physically impossible (but emotionally satisfying) leap like he does in the cartoon. Similarly, the musical numbers have been scaled down in such a way as to convincingly portray what real-life flesh-and-blood animals can or cannot do. While the Nazi imagery undoubtedly accounts for some of the changes to Be Prepared, it also seems likely that the number was reworked because jumping from rock-to-rock seems more practical for Scar.

The Simbas of the father.

Again, this is all breathtaking in a technical sense. The Lion King is a different sort of computer-generated narrative than audiences are used to; the stock comparison has been to the sorts of nature documentaries featuring voice over that attempts to humanise the animal subjects. It is an obvious point of reference, but there is some truth in it. It is impossible to imagine what audiences from even twenty-five years ago would have made of a project like The Lion King. The decision to employ this approach against a beloved animated classic almost feels like an arthouse experiment, a technological proof of concept.

However, the choice to render the film so faithfully and so photorealistically also traps the film. Most obviously, one of the issues with the live action remake is that the eyes and mouths on photorealistic lions are too small to allow for the full range of recognisably human emotional expression. After all, think of the cartoon characters that inspired this film; their eyes are impossibly large, their mouths able to contort in ways that are physically impossible for photorealistic lions. (It is possible to use computer-generated imagery while maintaining that cartoonishness; look at Detective Pikachu.) That emotional range is essential for the story that Favreau has chosen to tell.

Fitting the bill.

It’s tempting to wonder what the point of all this is? Beyond technical capacity and box office earnings, of course. It is astounding and impressive, but also rather lifeless.

6 Responses

  1. Aaanddd….the award for the most pointless film of 2019 goes to……

    (Seriously-the original Lion King is pretty flawed in the story and character department. They should have just made a new animated film that fixes those problems.)

  2. It’s a bit of a shame to hear that Favreau stuck so close to the original this time. I found his ‘Jungle Book’ to be surprisingly good, in part because it went further than the original to construct a coherent plot, and the new actors’ takes on the characters were distinct enough from the originals.

    Then again, I think that it helps that ‘Jungle Book’ was a 1967 movie while ‘Lion King’ is, what, 1994? There’s a case to be made that 50 years is long enough to warrant a remake (the original audience members are now grandparents!), while 25 years is harder to justify.

  3. live action remakes are pretty much balancing acts. If it’s too similar, it appears like a cheap immitation. If it’s too different, it appears inferior. That’s why in my opinion they work best when keeping the structure the same but the contents different, like the scene where we meet belle’s father or why jungle book worked. Because even though it’s the same story, if the whole thing is so different then you can’t make comparisons and find that the changes don’t work.

    For me though, some of the biggest weaknesses of the film weren’t how similar it was to the original, but the points where it was different (and seemingly for no reason), like in the original “circle of life” begins exactly as the sun rises as opposed to slightly later, or in the original the moment the singing ends is when simba roars signifying his ascent as king when in the remake he roars before they finish. like a symphony when the musicians start playing too early or too late.

    Also if you’ve ever seen the musical, then it’s a good example as to how to make the story longer.

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