The Lion King review – one live-action Disney remake too far

The latest Disney classic to get the remake treatment is proof that realistic doesn't necessarily mean better

The Lion King, the third – yes, third – “live-action” remake of a Disney animated classic to hit cinemas this year, is everything you love about The Lion King, except it isn’t. It’s all there, the stuff you love, and yet there is nothing there at all. It exists, this incarnation of Lion King, because somebody, somewhere, decided that “real” is better – that real is what makes a thing more appealing, more impressive. But thousands of years of subversive art has taught us that such a thing isn’t necessarily true. The Lion King is proof that no matter how realistic something looks, it can still come to us dead on arrival.

The Lion King 2019 is, as a result, perhaps the most heinous of the Disney remakes so far. Telling the same story as the 1994 version, of a young cub named Simba who must battle his evil uncle to reclaim his rightful place as King of Pride Rock, it’s film that makes Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin – in itself a picture that veered way too closely to its 1992 original – seem like a work of pure creative originality. Watching it, I was struck by the notion that my feelings towards Ritchie’s middling remake were magically adjusting themselves. I found myself suddenly admiring the new Aladdin‘s many diversions from the source material, questionable as they are, on the basis that there were simply there.

The Lion King is to its own original what Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake is to Hitchcock’s classic; a shot-for-shot remake that asks: “Is it possible for a remake, constructed identically, to evoke the greatness of the original?” When Van Sant went about his experiment, though, it was clearly that: an experiment. Disney, on the other hand, have already decided the answer to this question is yes. Why fix what isn’t broken? As such, it’s the only film I can recall watching in a theatre in which I had zero fear of needing a toilet break. What could I miss?

The main problem is that The Lion King, as a concept, relies on hand-drawn animation to deliver a satisfying, emotional story. Real animals can’t pull facial expressions, which essentially renders this 2019 version as a series of shots of animals staring at each other with blank faces, mouths moving up and down as to imitate talking (why this biological addition was deemed okay but facial expressions were not, I have no idea). There is something jarring about spending money, then, to see a less colourful, less creative rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” The film doesn’t seem to know what to do with its animals, scene to scene, on the basis they are only permitted to act like animals.

The film was directed by Jon Faverau, but not really. As the filmmaker behind the actually pretty great 2016 live-action The Jungle Book, he seemed like the right person for the job. But in the gap between films he appears to have forgotten everything he learned on that production, which felt inspired by the 1967 version but not beholden to it. This, on the other hand, feels like the original classic was tossed into a CGI translator device. What was Faverau really required to do here, except point his team to the original film and say, “Make that bit but with the computer.” Surely the original directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, deserve some credit too? Or perhaps they would not care to be associated?

Most frustratingly there are brief moments where The Lion King dares to to stray from its source material, especially in its scenes with Timon and Pumbaa (their lines have an improvisational quality), and you are able to glimpse how, done differently, this might have actually worked. But this is just a copy-and-paste job, more sluggish and – worst of all, perhaps – less fun. Lots of the original’s great comic elements (many of which were derived from Jeremy Iron’s deliciously camp villain Scar) have been scrapped; the new Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is solemn and dull. The rest of the cast, including Donald Glover, Beyoncé, and Seth Rogen, are fine. But these animals could have been played by anyone.

It is an undeniably gorgeous-looking film, so close to real life that at points you’re sure to forget that it isn’t. And yet, despite the technical heights reached here, not a single scene can match the vibrant brilliance of the original, hand-drawn animatics. The Lion King 2.0 contains some of the most incredible CGI ever put on the screen, but what a waste of time, talent, and money, to spend it on this.

When a movie like this one finds its way into cinemas, the popular question always seems to be: Who is this for? But isn’t the answer obvious? The Lion King is for you, and for me, and for those who love the original, and also for those who have never seen it. It is for everyone, because we – like animals caught in our own predictable circle of life – are unable to resist it. The Lion King is too powerful. Bad reviews cannot kill it. You have to wonder if we only have ourselves to blame for this deepfake beast.

★★☆☆☆

By: Tom Barnard

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