Jon Favreau swings from one directorial jungle to the next, or rather, savannah, in his second Disney remake, The Lion King, and does it with the brute strength of technological ambition but I’m afraid it’s at the shallow end of the emotional pool.
That “shiny new era” Scar said was tiptoeing nearer; it’s upon us. The era of resplendent remakes. But be prepared… for unsensational news.
Following the plaudits for The Jungle Book (2016), Favreau proved favourable in reimagining the next classic for whatever Disney had lion around – and the ’94 animation also happened to fall prey to his virtual reality games.
With the barometer at an unprecedented height after setting an unfathomable standard for CG animation, the director set himself up for a king size task for the most treasured and timeless toon of them all. Not least one that later spawned the most successful stage musical in the world and remains as ascendant 17 years later.
Almost everyone is familiar with the Shakespearian tinged tale of father-son relations between Mufasa and Simba, by using animal allegories to tell human stories. So to alter anything would incite uproar, but Favreau insists this is not simply a remake but a reinvention.
I just have one question – why?
Despite its awe-inspiring, visually arresting scenes, that positions the film as its most technologically accomplished yet, compared to earlier live-action remakes from Christopher Robin (2018) to Dumbo (2019), it’s deprived of sentient.
If this is a spoiler for you – shame on you. When young Simba, (JD McRary) misconstrues the death of his father, King Mufasa, reprised by none other than James Earl Jones, Simba’s evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) banishes him in a Machiavellian scheme to usurp the throne. But under the foster care of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Simba learns the problem-free philosophy ‘Hakuna Matata’, and returns to his Pride Lands to vanquish Scar from Pride Rock to take his place as rightful ruler.
With all that domestic discord, childhood trauma and obligation, there’s a certain amount of feeling the characters might want to express. And as the original animation leant itself perfectly to emote those feelings, in its entire mechanical marvel, this photo-realistic CG animation instead turns them into lacklustre lions.
There is the relief that Favreau didn’t deviate too much from the original story because when you consider the plot points, it tracks almost accurately but there are discernable moments and dialogue that were decidedly different or discarded. But when realism is the goal, emotional sacrifices must be made. In combining VR advancements with camera technology alongside CG animation, it subdued expression where it was needed the most.
What does benefit, however, from said cocktail of computerised graphics are the luscious landscapes, intimate camera angles and earthly atmosphere. From the wonderfully windswept mane of Mufasa to the way the sand puffs away at Simba’s paws as he traverses the savannah in solitude. Then there’s Timon and Pumbaa’s resplendent forest that’s as vividly verdurous as a National Geographic documentary. The camera angles achieve new heights as well, through an extended sequence of the simian shaman, when we see an army of ants transporting Simba’s DNA at the foot of Rafiki’s Ancient Tree from an intricately oblique close up, before they ascend the bark so the wise mandrill can pluck the familiar tuft and restore order.
There are some supplementary animals as well, not necessarily characters, but they do help to populate the precincts an iota, from the “crawling ant to the leaping antelope” when we’re in the comedy duo’s humble abode. There’s further dialogue between Scar and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) while he’s gnawing at the carcass of his latest kill with a blood-drenched mouth that fleshes out their acrimonious relationship too.
Aside from the special effects, and we must concede, they are special and some additions. Placing professionalism before expressionism means we lose the core of the characters and any emotion felt was through memorable musical melodies. Had they not recycled the original score composed by Hans Zimmer, I don’t think I would have felt anything – much less the Love Tonight. Here, Favreau only manages to underscore the emotion by bringing us the original score, pandering to our nostalgia.
Seeing Simba so stolid when he’s supposed to be excited or forlorn or Zazu (John Oliver) so indifferent when he’s so frenetic begs you to rely on your former feeling felt from the cartoon to stir any emotional response. The voice actors were too tame but I am grateful for the all mighty Mufasa being led by his original voice master; he’s the only one that projected and injected anything into the film.
As far as Disney remakes go, they should have just left the great King of the past up there – where it belongs.