By Preston Wilder
I’m hopelessly torn about The Lion King. It’s going to be a hit – it might even end up in the Oscar race – and it’s easy to see why. It’s intense, more than any kids’ cartoon in recent memory. (Toy Story is more of a quiet existential intensity.) It looks great, in the landscape-artist sense of fiery sunsets and starry skies. Yet almost every creative decision associated with this film seems to be wrong, at least to me. Let me explain:
Why was it made, for a start? Yeah I know, there are ‘no new ideas’; it’s utopian to expect originality. Aladdin, the previous example of an old Disney ‘toon being cannibalised for a live-action remake, got a pass for being vaguely enjoyable, despite being unoriginal; why can’t The Lion King – a more substantial film, overall – get the same? Besides, The Lion King isn’t just a cartoon, having also been a smash-hit on Broadway. It’s already been recycled – so why not recycle it once more?
Then again, even Aladdin wasn’t a patch on the original – and Aladdin was just two months ago, Dumbo two months before that; how many more of these things can we take? As for the stage show, there’s a world of difference between adapting to a new medium and offering a slavish, scene-by-scene reconstruction. Dumbo was dire but it had some reason to exist, if only in contriving an entirely new second half to a 64-minute cartoon. This is just The Lion King all over again, though admittedly I’m not really qualified to note any differences. I watched the original in 1994 and haven’t revisited, not being exactly a rabid fan – but then would a rabid fan even want a new version? Who exactly is this movie aimed at?
So much for ‘Why was it made?’. The bigger question is ‘Why was it made like this?’. The Lion King isn’t actually live-action, it’s still a cartoon – but it’s ‘photorealistic’, meaning the animals look like animals (except they talk). The technical achievement is impressive, but in fact it gets in the way again and again – especially since the film (unlike Aladdin) is dramatically ambitious, trying to evoke sincere, often complex emotions. The voice work is fine, but it often feels like the audio’s been imported from a whole other movie (or perhaps from people in a booth commenting on the movie, MST3K-style). When Nala says “I came here looking for help; I guess I made a mistake… Goodbye, Simba!”, the juxtaposition of this poignant speech and the visual of a lion’s face – even with the lips moving – is just too distracting; you’re liable to think ‘Why is this lion being so dramatic? (and why does it sound like Beyoncé?)’ instead of responding to the actual moment.
It’s a fine line, of course. The concept would probably work if the animals were alien creatures (as, for instance, in Avatar) – and will probably work for young kids, who make no real distinction between animals and alien creatures. It’s a bit like the trailer for Maleficent 2, which screened before the movie and showed Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer dubbed into Greek. For me, that was almost as big a disconnect as the talking lions – but of course dubbing is common in many countries, and there are people in Germany who’ve never heard Jolie and Pfeiffer speak except in German. One might say it’s a matter of conditioning. I prefer to say that talking lions are bad, and dubbing Michelle Pfeiffer and Angelina Jolie into Greek is also bad.
There’s another problem, and it may be the biggest one of all. The Lion King has a weighty, momentous plot (a riff on Hamlet, basically), but also show tunes and flatulent comic relief. The cartoon just about squared the circle by virtue of being a cartoon, hence unreal by definition – but the style here makes everything more literal: the dead Mufasa actually looks dead, Scar is mangy and un-campy, even the joke of feasting on grubs gets a bit curdled (the grubs look real too!). Not only do the tones clash, there’s also a kind of philosophical imbalance: The Lion King works by pitting animal violence against the redemptive notion of the ‘Circle of Life’ – but the violence is now too visceral, and the balance is lost.
It’s tempting to dismiss the film as a fiasco – yet that would be wrong. It’s a potent story, made with all the impeccable CGI money can buy; I’ve no doubt it’ll be a stirring experience for millions of kiddies. Still, the fact remains that this movie isn’t just misjudged, it’s unnecessary: the 1994 version still exists, and requires no footnotes. “There’s more to see than can ever be seen,” go the lyrics to ‘Circle of Life’, “more to do than can ever be done”. Do something new, Disney peeps.
DIRECTED BY Jon Favreau
WITH THE VOICES OF Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen
US 2019 118 mins