The House of Mouse continues its unchallenged box-office supremacy with yet another remake of a beloved classic, following this year’s naff Dumbo retread and the better-than-expected Aladdin. Now it’s time for Disney’s much hyped The Lion King reworking, and it’s a strange beast.
You’ve got to feel for director Jon Favreau, who did such a great job with 2016’s The Jungle Book. He was clearly stuck between in rock and a hard place with this ‘live action’ The Lion King: take too many liberties with such a cherished classic and purists will cry foul; make a beat-for-beat adaptation and you’ll end up disappointing those looking for something more than a mere nostalgia fix. He opts for the latter, crafting a largely faithful remake that has less emphasis on the songs and banks on the wonder of the visuals. Mission accomplished in this respect: as a showcase of visual effects team MPC’s unparalleled craft and a testament to what can be achieved nowadays in terms of computer animation, 2019’s The Lion King is quite the achievement. The photorealism so uncannily perfect that David Attenborough’s voice could feasibly pop up at any point to narrate proceedings. As a piece of storytelling, however, it’s tempting to quote the king’s feathered messenger Zazu when he comments on young Simba’s roar: it’s “a rather uninspiring thing”. Indeed, The Lion King never captures the magic of the original, feeling like a less impactful and bizarrely flat exercise that trades emotion for realism. The stunning visuals create a distancing effect as the animals’ faces, realistic though they undeniably are, are stiff and simply can’t convey emotion through expression.
No amount of impressive voice-casting can make up for this. For instance, when Simba and Nala flirt in the 1994 The Lion King, sparks fly; here, you’d be hard-pressed to feel the love tonight. Especially since they’ve decided to set “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in broad daylight, negating the very title of the song! And at the risk of angering the Beyhive, Beyoncé as Nala is a piece of stunt casting that doesn’t work, feeling like a gimmick merely arranged as an excuse to slot in a new song, “Spirit”, much like they did with Jasmine’s “Speechless” in Aladdin.
Not that it’s all bad – this version’s Timon and Pumbaa are a joy, with Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen adding some much-needed verve to the proceedings. There are also some great gags, specifically a cheeky Beauty and the Beast song crossover at one point which had me in stitches. Still, it’s hard to fathom who this remake is for, aside from the bean counters – a perennial problem with these recent reimaginings, but The Lion King sadly hits a particular sore spot. It proves once again that just because you can craft technically dazzling CGI and live-action treatments, it doesn’t mean you should or that the ensuing result will improve upon the original hand-drawn animation. And as carefully orchestrated as it is, visuals alone don’t justify The Lion King’s creative purpose.
The Lion King | Directed by Jon Favreau (US 2019) with Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen. Starts July 18.
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