Review (2 of 2): THE LION KING – What The Hell Are We Doing Here?

The following is the second of two reviews on the new Disney Product THE LION KING. Click on the main page to read Managing Editor Jason Whyte’s take on this…movie.

I feel nothing. So, I’m about on par with the emotional range of the reimagined characters in Disney’s baffling remake of THE LION KING.

We need to lay a little groundwork: the 1994 LION KING is one of my favorite original works from Disney—and obviously I use the word “original” loosely, because I know it’s a hybrid of Hamlet and the anime series KIMBA THE WHITE LION, but I’m generous to THE LION KING for its own ingenuity. The animation, characterizations, voice acting, breathtaking score by Hans Zimmer, timeless original songs, and even the directorial and editing choices make THE LION KING, in my view, an original-enough work of art. What’s more, THE LION KING is my first movie-going memory. I was five. I was restless. I didn’t have theatre etiquette. But when my mom pointed out the animals racing across the screen, I was glued and would stay still for the rest of the film. Since then, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched it. The character animation choices and musical beats and even the line readings have involuntarily nestled in my brain folds.

But I truly approached this remake with an open mind, as I try to do with all films. I don’t even dislike the notion of remakes. I even liked the goddamn KING KONG remake, all right?! So I remained open-minded. Even when Disney released laughable character posters that were just pictures of animals with names above them. Even when the first teaser was a shot-for-shot remake of the “Circle of Life” number and I watched it in awe, dumbstruck that they were really doing this, they were really going to make us pay for the same film twice. Still, I remained open-minded. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was… okay. I liked THE JUNGLE BOOK, helmed by LION KING director Jon Favreau. This could work! Maybe!

Spoilers: it doesn’t work.

The best aspect of the film will be the universally-praised, soon-to-be-Oscar-winning visual effects, because they truly are stunners. Rarely did the illusion break, and the closer the film drew in on faces, the sharper the details stood out. It’s an impressive landmark for visual effects in film. But so was THE PHANTOM MENACE. Without story, visual effects are just tech demos. So where does this remake falter? It has the original powerful store in its arsenal, and you can be sure it follows that story verbatim, almost like Favreau was afraid to steer the ship in any different direction. It’s hard to blame him; the original film is so beloved. But also, the original film is instructive economic storytelling. And that’s part of why 2019’s LION KING fails to deliver: it adds an unnecessary thirty minutes to the runtime, making us too aware of how thin the story actually is. THE LION KING’s story wasn’t a narrative success but an emotional one; it punches for the gut without flinching, almost in defiance of Disney’s reputation as a safe space to bring your kids, and those big swings are done in deft, artful ways—from Mufasa’s death to Rafiki’s discovery of Simba’s survival to the cloudy apparition with the refrain “Remember.” By disrupting the pacing of this story, the remake lessens its impact. And what did these extra thirty minutes add, really? Another sixty seconds of Timon and Pumbaa singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” What the hell are we doing here?

But the biggest offender is the animation itself, or rather the decision to stay as realistic as possible with animal depictions. The story needs Simba to feel loss, grief, and renewal—but each one of these beats is undercut immensely by the fact that he can’t bloody emote. Because lions can’t emote. So, when Simba is crying over his father’s motionless body in the gorge—a seminal moment that has been part of my generation’s film culture since it premiered twenty-five years ago—I feel nothing because lions can’t cry, they can’t emote grief, and there’s an uncanny disconnect happening between the dead stare of a digital lion cub and his voice actor straining to speak. I like to picture Jon Favreau directing the animators, telling them to lessen the humanization, make it look more like a lion, it needs to look like real life—followed by him walking into the next cubicle to review the work being done on the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” musical number. What the hell are we doing here?

And those musical numbers suffer from this style. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” was conceived as a chance to inject a kaleidoscope of colors into the film, a chance to get a little silly, a moment for the kids. But in the remake, it’s just some cubs running around larger animals, occasionally getting splashed with water. And this sums up all of the film’s reimagined musical numbers: rather than a chance to show characterization or tell a joke or just do anything visually interesting, each number is comprised of lions trotting and singing, and often climbing several rocks until they’re atop a big rock. Scintillating. And should we even mention “Be Prepared”? The darkly snappy tune has been cut to a fraction of its length, and instead of goose-stepping hyenas, we’re treated to Scar walking around, singing the last few lines Rex Harrison style.

Scar himself is not badly portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but his performance does feel muted compared to Jeremy Irons’ iconic turn. Irons made syllables memorable in his line readings. It’s not a fair shake to watch this and picture how much better he is delivered every single word. And when they’re willing to bring back James Earl Jones and not even ask Irons to reprise his role, one has to wonder: what the hell are we doing here? And Scar just isn’t fun in this iteration. He kind of can’t be fun if he’s not being his best campy self. And maybe Disney didn’t want to go that route since, you know, Scar’s original portrayal does kind of reinforce negative homophobic coding in Hollywood films (Sage Hyden has an informative piece on this on his quality-filled Just Write channel). But we forgive Scar, I think. He’s a villain we love to hate because he’s so well played by Irons, and that performance is so well accentuated by the animators. His mannerisms are part of his charm. We don’t want to see him lose those in a remake. But here we are. Now he’s just a beige jerk. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m going into so much detail here, but I feel compelled to break this film down to the atomic level.

The voice acting in general doesn’t live up to the OG cast. Donald Glover and Beyoncé are definitely in this movie, somewhere. I think. It’s hard to know. Their voices don’t exactly mix well with the rest of the film, so it feels like they’re often hovering over the characters like puppeteers. It’s a strange phenomenon. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I had a hard time attributing their voices to real damn lions sauntering around because real damn lions don’t talk, let alone sing. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” plays during the daytime. What the hell are we doing here? The highlights are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Their fresh jokes are a brief respite in this valley of nonsense. And I couldn’t help but be tickled by Timon standing upright and screaming—just like Billy Eichner! This is turning into a Simpsons bit real fast here, so let’s move on. Beyoncé! Oh, Queen. She cannot act. She simply cannot. And that’s okay! She’ll be all right! But not only are her readings flat and strange, but her rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” feels more like a competition with her duet partner Donald Glover. Not every song needs to be a highlight reel of all the notes she can hit. The hyenas are given awkward personalities, now dull and vicious rather than vibrant jokesters. John Oliver does his best, but I’m not sure anyone who doesn’t watch LAST WEEK TONIGHT will appreciate how much Zazu values reporting the news. And again, he’s just a bird. He’s a goddamn bird just standing there. He opens his beak like a regular bird—open, shut, open shut—and out comes complex words and sentence structures in quick, panicked succession. There’s an added bit—after Mufasa rescues Simba and Nala from the hyenas—when Zazu attempts to ask Mufasa to go easy on the misguided cubs. It’s a genuine acting moment from Oliver—he delivers perfectly. But… but it’s a goddamn bird, with its unexpressive beak, with its dead eyes staring, staring like every bird on the planet. What… what the hell are we…?

Hans Zimmer returns to, I don’t know, add a few wind chimes to his perfect Oscar-winning score. And without the music in THE LION KING, no moment would even come close to landing. But following the rule of thumb for this cursed production, Zimmer unnecessarily filters much of his score through an electric guitar amp, which has been his trademark for the past decade. Other times, his score is either mixed too low on the track or completely bored with the scene. I strained to hear it during the elephant graveyard chase because the original track is brilliant, but I couldn’t even detect a ghost of that track. With a quick search, I found Zimmer changed this sequence’s music completely. And the change (as shown below) isn’t necessarily to a bad new track, but it doesn’t stay in my eardrum once I turn it off either. And sometimes no sync with the film seems to be done—like Favreau took the amped-up new version of the track and laid it over the scene regardless of how well it paced with what he edited together. Simba’s final ascension of Pride Rock is completely out of sync, robbing the moment of its intended impact. Other times, like a uselessly extended sequence involving a tuft of fur, the score is jarringly extended.

If anything, this film could be used by film schools on multiple fronts: how editing your music to your scene matters; how characters’ emotion are essential to the plot (and we need to see them!); how editing can make or break your story (or: how you can cut needless stuff). Put this film up against its original. Watch, for example, the aforementioned sequence of a fur tuft for two minutes, then watch the economical way the 1994 version achieves the same plot point in mere artful seconds.

But to do this would be to suggest we can learn, when clearly we can’t. This film will be the easiest billion dollars Disney will make since ENDGAME. This tech demo reel of a film. How did we get here? This is the result of us crossing into a darker timeline. The audience scores for this film are shockingly positive, when I know for a fact that it’s because my generation isn’t actually experiencing this film, they’re experiencing the original. They’re mentally layering the original over this dreck, recalling how good it was to grow up with, and nostalgia is winning. And it’s hard. It’s hard for us to be skeptical or even downright cruel to Disney when we’ve been raised on the genuine art they used to produce. I know some folks who are such fans that they’d decided how to feel about this film before it released, and now they defend it because it achieved what it needed to for them: it told the story of THE LION KING and it looked nice doing it.

But I miss the Disney that wasn’t all acquisitions and reproductions. They’ve always been a business, but part of that business used to make good films. And where would they be without those original works now to draw on and soullessly reproduce? Several billion dollars poorer, I guess, which I’m sure doesn’t disturb Robert Iger’s sleep. But I’m wary of any business that transforms into a corporation that transforms into a monopoly. And they were good to us once, and maybe they’re still not exactly flouncing about like Scar, but their teeth and ambitions sure are bared, and they seem absolutely gluttonous lately. And if we keep giving them our money for these brazen cash-grabs because we’re nostalgic dummies, then what the hell are we doing here?

THE LION KING is now in theatres. You could do much, much better.

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