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In the modern age of everything-is-possible visual effects, there has been a massive change in the way in which we look at live-action versus animated storytelling. It used to be that the latter could supplement the limitations of the former when trying to conceptualize larger-than-life ideas, but the power of computers these days has completely eliminated that line of thinking – with living furniture, all-powerful genies, and fierce jungle animals now realistically visualized on the big screen like never before. Obviously the recent popularization of live-action remakes of animated classics in general very much reflects this shift, but Jon Favreau’s The Lion King really epitomizes it all by itself.
The movie isn’t a live-action remake by definition, as only one shot in the feature was actually captured with a camera (the rest being state-of-the-art CGI), but the intent in its creation is ultimately the same as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, or Favreau’s The Jungle Book, which is to photo-realistically bring fantastical and beloved stories back to the big screen. In that respect it is an absolute triumph, as it’s a technical wonder and stunningly beautiful from the first frame until the last.
It’s not that simple, though, because what is and isn’t possible in live-action has never been the be-all-end-all determining factor for what makes an animated film. Like oil paints versus watercolor, the medium is a stylistic choice all by itself. There are certain perspectives and expressions that can be depicted in the art that simply can’t be captured in live-action, and it’s why animation will always be an incredibly important part of cinema.
This is where The Lion King’s primary issue arises. While everything looks incredibly life-like, it reveals that there are particular limitations of reality that run into conflict with the needs of the storytelling, and that’s a problem that it struggles to overcome. As impressive as it may be – and it is a marvel – the experience doesn’t capture the full magic of the 1994 original.
With some exception, the new film doesn’t change much when it comes to the general narrative of the classic, playing out a take on Hamlet that’s set in the African savanna and stars a diverse collection of animals. It begins as the king and queen of Pride Rock, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), give birth to a lion cub that is destined to be Mufasa’s heir to the throne. This is welcomed news to the various species living in the kingdom, but the lone exception is Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has suddenly found himself demoted in the line of succession.
Young Simba (JD McCrary) is rambunctious and fun-loving, particularly when palling around with his playmate Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), but also eager to learn about the land he will eventually rule, and absorbs the wisdom of his father.
Great as things are, it doesn’t take long for everything to fall apart, courtesy of Scar and his alliance with the ravenous hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre). An evil plan goes swimmingly for the villains, and recovering from tragedy Simba finds himself an outcast from his community. Taken in by a meerkat and warthog duo named Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), he lives his life away from Pride Rock – but eventually learns the true consequences of his departure, and must decide what he wants his future to be.
The familiarity of the whole setup alone will hyper-click the nostalgia button of anyone who has grown up watching the original Lion King, and it sends a chill down your spine from the start with the first notes of “The Circle Of Life.” Taking that a step further, it’s fun to hear and see the new renditions of the brilliant line-up songs brought to life again, as the source material has arguably the best soundtrack in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios musicals. A great deal of what is great about 1994 film is maintained here.
It’s also in the musical sequences, however, that you recognize the fascinating advantage that the traditionally animated version has over the remake. In a word, it’s about theatricality. You first notice it in the “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” number – which thematically is meant to inform the audience about Simba’s ambitions, but also practically for the narrative help Simba and Nala escape the watchful eye of Mufasa’s avian majordomo, Zazu (John Oliver), so that they can sneak into the forbidden elephant graveyard.
In the 1994 movie it’s a zippy, colorful, highly choreographed sequence involving a wide variety of animals that climaxes with a pyramid of creatures collapsing on top of Zazu, allowing Simba and Nala to escape. But the 2019 film can’t do that. The realistic aesthetic demands that the characters all behave realistically, and that definitely means excluding animal pyramids that feature anteaters standing on the backs of giraffes that are standing on the backs of hippos. There are definitely a lot of different species included in the scene, and to Jon Favreau’s credit he tries to push that line as far as he can, but it’s a high bar for which the new take is left reaching.
It’s something that’s present throughout the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor presents some awesome pipes with his recording of the sinister “Be Prepared,” but it doesn’t feel the same watching it without pools of mysterious, bubbling green ooze and hyenas firing off screen courtesy of volcanic geysers. Even the more naturally cartoony Timon and Pumbaa don’t get to do any cliff-diving while performing an excellent and hilarious update of “Hakuna Matata.”
But the theatricality is only part of the issue. It’s also about the emotionality displayed by the characters. Walt Disney Animation Studios has a long legacy of masterful animators skillfully anthropomorphizing animal characters and letting them show a wider-than-natural range of complex feelings, but that’s largely because they have the freedom to imbue noticeable human-like qualities in the work. Again, the 2019 Lion King can’t do that. There’s only so far that the animation on these realistic lions can be pushed to make them more expressive – and that’s a limitation. The blessing is that there is an outstanding cast backing everything up that could still make the movie an emotional experience even if you’re blindfolded.
Being an actor himself, Jon Favreau knows how to build an ensemble, and that skill is on full display here. It will shock absolutely nobody to learn that it is Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen who steal the show, as Timon and Pumbaa have always been fan-favorites, but the duo really does put a special spin on the characters that comes as a result of the actors’ unique personalities (there’s a certain meta-ness/fourth wall awareness they have that works incredibly well in this version).
Going back to the music, the combination of Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter (playing adult Simba and Nala, respectively) brings tremendous power to the ballad “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” and JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph really do deliver some wonderful youthful energy to “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.”
Viewed in a vacuum, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is a highly entertaining and enjoyable ride, but to a certain degree it also feels like a litmus test: it’s an easily sellable movie that will help gauge audience reaction to a new advanced filmmaking technology. Given what works and what doesn’t, hopefully it will inspire the approach to be applied in even bigger and more advanced original storytelling in the long run. As it currently exists, though, it’s a curious experiment.