MOVIE REVIEW: The Lion King remake’s big mistake
THE 1994 animated version of The Lion King left an indelible impression on whole generations of moviegoers that it's impossible to not compare the new live-action version against the original.
It's something the filmmakers, including director Jon Favreau, were acutely aware of given how closely it hewed to its predecessor, careful to not upset sensitive and opinionated Gen-Yers who consider it a formative part of their childhood.
It's that history that saves and damns this remake at the same time.
The memories and emotions tied to the animated classic are so strong that even when Mufasa appears on screen for the first time, there's a pang in your heart, your mind automatically flitting to the poignant scene of young Simba, paws on his father, asking him to wake up.
It's enough to bring tears to your eyes, and you haven't even made it to that point in the new movie yet.
This 2019 version trades so heavily on the nostalgia and love for the original that it's never able to break out and be its own film. You don't ask James Earl Jones to come back and voice Mufasa, also known as the best father figure in a Disney film, if you're not leaning into it.
Which means how the audience receives it will always be bonded to a comparison between the two, even when it's not necessarily fair.
Many people have asked, why does this movie exist, why make it at all?
That's not the right question. The fact that The Lion King will still clear $US1 billion worldwide is only partly why it exists. That's not cynical, that's business.
Why it exists on a creative level is clear too. When technological advances mean you can create 100 minutes of the African savanna with breathtaking beauty without using a single frame of real footage, that's a temptation many filmmakers can't resist.
The computer animation really is impressive. From the wrinkles in the elephants' hide to the blades of grass on the ground, the precision of detail in every instance is awe-inspiring. You can see the sinewy muscles move as the lions prowl and you can see how different light hits the ground and the trees, thanks to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
Why wouldn't you marry that visual mastery with a beloved story?
The story itself varies little from the original version, hitting the same significant narrative and character beats. Some scenes and characters have expanded, such as the hyena pack who is far more menacing than appropriate for young children.
This is a darker version, and not just because it's literally darker at times. This version comes closer to Hamlet, aided in part by Chiwetel Ejiofor's voice performance as Scar, threading an almost Shakespearean gravity through the villain's snivelling resentment.
Those scenes are leavened by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen's winning chemistry as Timon and Pumbaa. Damn, those guys are scene-stealingly hilarious. Their dialogue is a bit updated and the sense of play rings through the whole middle act.
Donald Glover is a satisfying adult Simba, especially as the slacker version palling around with Timon and Pumbaa, but Beyonce Carter-Knowles is miscast. It's a clear-cut case of stunt casting, one that distracts and takes you out of the story. Carter-Knowles also has a clipped cadence that doesn't gel with Glover's more free-flowing rhythm.
Where The Lion King really falters is its fidelity to photorealism means its characters' faces are not particularly animated (Timon and Pumbaa seem to be the exception), and you lose so much of the emotion as a result. It's harder to connect with grounded, realistic animals, even when they're talking and singing.
It's also hard to tell the difference between animals of the same species - like, near impossible to distinguish Nala from Sarabi from the other lionesses, unless they're speaking.
Many of the sequences, such as the "I Just Can't Wait to be King" song and dance, feels dialled down by about 20 per cent to accommodate the photorealism, and it feels flat, losing that extra sparkle that made the original The Lion King shine so brightly.
It's even more apparent when you have Hans Zimmer's incredible score playing over the top, the overall narrative unable to match the majesty of that evocative music, even if the visuals are grand.
The real question of The Lion King is who is this movie for?
If it's to introduce a new generation of kids to this story, that's great, even if you'll likely traumatise most five-year-olds. Seriously, this isn't for small kids.
But if it's to recapture the hearts and consciousness of the adults who grew up with it, by trying to serve up a facsimile of what they loved, it may have missed the mark. It was a futile ambition in the first place, a mistake trying so hard to placate a generation that is often hostile to any "meddling" of their precious childhood memories.
Though by no means a disaster or even a bad movie, The Lion King would've been better off trying to be more of its own movie, do something different in terms of story and character, and aim as high narratively as it achieved with its extraordinary visuals.
As it is, it can't escape the comparison trap it laid for itself.
The Lion King is in cinemas from today
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