Film Torments: The Lion King (2019)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan sighs heavily. Spoilers ahead.

It’s easy to see the appeal of remakes. Taking a piece of media from another time offers ripe opportunities to re-contextualise and re-interpret it, allowing it to become meaningful and contemporary for modern audiences. While the practice often draws derision and overblown accusations of creative bankruptcy, the fact remains that some of the most enduring films of the past few decades have, in fact, been remakes: ScarfaceThe ThingThe Departed, even Twelve Monkeys – all remakes, all acclaimed in their own right.

This is partly why, in theory, our future lizard overlords at Disney’s ongoing desire to remake their animated catalogue is a good thing. The stories themselves are, in essence, timeless; it’s the trappings around them that change, reflecting the zeitgeist and moulding the way the work is presented. More insidiously, it’s an ingenious update of Michael Eisner’s “Disney Vault”, ensuring that the brand maintains a constant global presence as the years wind on. (Though it’s probably for the best that they leave Song of the South well enough alone.) These remakes aren’t a bad idea in isolation, despite the often mediocre (and, occasionally, deeply controversial) execution.

And then there’s The Lion King. The original film is a seminal piece of animated opera that broke records worldwide, redefined what the art form was capable of and truly ushered in the age of the so-called Disney Renaissance. It is a beloved classic, in every sense of the term, the memory of which is seared into the retinas of those who grew up with it. It was Biblical, Shakespearean and Saturday Night Live-ian (oof) all in one, buffered by uniformly excellent performances, an incredible musical score and peerless art direction. It was, and is, a deeply important milestone in animation. You do not fuck about with The Lion King.

So that’s exactly what happened when The Lion King received the remake treatment last year. That’s also exactly what didn’t happen when The Lion King received the remake treatment last year. Jon Favreau didn’t do. He also did. By this point, you’ve probably realised that I’m talking in circles to avoid having to talk about the film itself. I’ll be blunt: If you’ve seen The Lion King, then you’ve seen 2019’s The Lion King. It’s the same film, except, somehow, it’s half an hour longer. After watching it for the purposes of this article – and purely for the purposes of this article – I struggle to pinpoint exactly where the additional footage begins or ends.

And, of course, there are some changes, which we’ll talk about in due course, but this remake is fundamentally the exact same film. Some sequences are extended, others truncated, and sometimes there are entirely new additions, but this is the same film: Misremembered Hamlet by way of Exodus and Broadway, with talking animals, in the heart of Africa. Young lion Simba (JD McCrary, then Donald Glover) must grow into the king he was destined by monarchical birth right to be, contending with the perils of maturity and his shady uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) along the way.

The first change is immediate: It’s live-action. Sort of. It certainly looks it, which is an astounding testament to the skill of all the CG artists involved, but everything here was created digitally, from the lions to the dung beetles to the blades of grass. There is, in fact, one single live-action shot in the entire film – the first one, where the sun rises over a sleep-stirred Africa. What follows is a literal shot-for-shot rendition of the original’s iconic ‘Circle of Life’ opening, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, proves to be the high point of the remake. It’s the most impressive showcase for the ground-breaking technology on display throughout the film, with hundreds of CG animals bucking and rearing in celebratory unison as baby Simba is held aloft.

And it is undoubtedly a phenomenal technological achievement – “a new form of film-making”, in the words of Disney’s President of Production, Sean Bailey – and we certainly shouldn’t diminish or downplay that fact. However, the great advantage of animation, whether computer-generated or hand-drawn or otherwise, is how expressive it can be. Impossible facial contortions; elastic limbs; surreal landscapes – all made gloriously possible by the medium of animation. Lions – real lions, now – are not expressive. Neither are meerkats, or hornbills, or warthogs. They are literally incapable of it. Why, then – besides the obvious – did the relevant parties decide to strip one of the most emotive animated films of all time of its emotion?

The photo-realistic aesthetic, as impressive as it is, kills the film. I don’t know why Favreau and crew went for it, other than to prove that they could, but they did. The film is dead as a consequence. Despite sharing (roughly) the same script, the same music (bar one pointless, jarring and utterly Beyoncé indulgence) and the same characters, there is a fundamental disconnect between the animals’ dead-eyed glaze and the elements surrounding them that is impossible to escape.

Take the stampede scene, for instance. The core elements are the same, right down to the heartbreaking score from a returning Hans Zimmer, but the critical moments of emotional resonance are completely lost. Compare the dolly zoom of young Simba’s terror in the original to the impassive blinking of CG Simba; in the original, his fear – and, consequently the audience’s fear – is conveyed with crashing immediacy, investing us into the peril of his situation. The expressionless malaise of the CG lion, by contrast, provides an insurmountable dissonance, even as the actors try their damndest to inject the weight that the original scene commanded so effortlessly. Even worse, Scar literally punches Mufasa off the cliff-edge, in an alteration so comically misjudged it ruins the ensuing scene.

It becomes increasingly apparent that the actors are fighting a losing battle against this handicap. Except for Donald Glover, whose delivery sounds like he has a gun pressed against his head, all the actors are committed to their performances – even Beyoncé is trying, despite Nala still feeling like an afterthought. The hyenas have a more menacing dynamic but are consequently less memorable, which extends to a straightforwardly militaristic rendition of ‘Be Prepared’. Ejiofor eschews the pompous smarm of Jeremy Irons, instead imbuing Scar with a scowling bitterness that adds a different dimension to the character. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa respectively aren’t as sharp as Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and their often improvisatory banter is occasionally grating, but they also provide a fresh take on the characters without diluting what made them so appealling in the original.

But that’s the real issue here. The (insanely profitable) cynicism of the Disney corporation aside, the great problem shared between all of the live-action remakes thus far is that they often don’t do enough to differentiate themselves from their forebears; when they do, it’s mostly for the worse. The Lion King is the crowning example of this issue – it offers nothing that the original doesn’t, and what it does add is entirely negligible.

The Lion King is an impressive but baffling facsimile; a stunning example of being too pre-occupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. In other words, it is an imitation of the most flattering form, making the original seem that much more monumental than it already is.

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