Please indulge me in a brief digression before we get to the review proper. I had not originally planned to see The Lion King remake. While liking the original, it wouldn’t make my personal top-five list of Best Disney Movies Of All Time. (Of course I’m one of those weirdos who thinks Bedknobs and Broomsticks is better than Mary Poppins, so make of that what you will.)
I wound up seeing if for three reasons. First, because I had a free movie ticket that would have gone to waste if I hadn’t used it this weekend. Next, because our resident film critic and Disney-phile Roy Buckingham flat-out refused to see it or support Disney’s need to continually remake all their classics for a quick buck. Finally, because someone had to review it and I’m the sort of editor who leads from the front and won’t subject my people to anything I wouldn’t do myself, particularly when they’re recovering from surgery.
Incidentally, Roy is taking donations to fund his post-surgery physical therapy. If you enjoy our work here at Kabooooom and can afford it, we’d appreciate you helping out. Thank you. Now, on with the review.
There’s no need to recap the story of The Lion King. If you’ve seen the 1994 animated film or the musical based on the same, you know the story. Come to that, if you know your Shakespeare you know this story, as it mixes the plots of Hamlet and the Henry V tetralogy. A king dies at the hand of a treacherous brother and the prince must grow up to save the kingdom, as comic servants and friends of the prince caper about. (There’s a Masters’ thesis somewhere just waiting to be written, comparing and contrasting Pumbaa to Falstaff, but again I digress.)
The only thing separating this Lion King from the earlier versions is that its story is told entirely through photo-realistic computer animation. This is simultaneously the best and worst aspect of the movie. It must be said that the computer animation is revolutionary and the digital artists did an amazing job of creating realistic looking animals.
Unfortunately, most animal species lack the ability to express emotion with their faces the same way humans do. This results in most of the scenes looking like a nature documentary, regardless of how much emotion the actors put into their performance. The characters all have the same glassy-eyed stare, whatever the situation or dialogue. For all the effort that was put into syncing the actor’s voices to the lip-movements of the animals on-screen, they might as well have just dubbed the voices over footage of real animals, ala Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.
The damnable thing is that the movie has a fantastic ensemble and most of the cast have experience as voice actors, which makes it all the more jarring for everything on the screen to look so muted. To give some examples, John Oliver finds the right pompous notes in playing Zazu, but the bird never looks frightened when being menaced by Scar and his hyena henchmen. Chiwetel Ejiofor has the appropriate sense of menace as Scar, but his cool delivery as rendered through his emaciated character model makes him seem in desperate need of a nap rather than a sinister schemer.
The one aspect of the film that works is, paradoxically, the one most at odds with Disney’s vision for a photo-realistic Lion King – Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. The animation for Timon is without weight, as he jumps around not quite walking on his hind legs, while Billy Eichner manically screams everything. They stick out like sore thumbs and almost every scene they’re in breaks the fourth wall.
Granted, Timon and Pumbaa did this in the original film too. But their antics here go beyond even the famous “Not in front of the kids!” line from “Hakuna Matata,” which is changed for this film, as Disney no longer has issues with the word “farted.” Now Timon comments that Simba has put on 400 pounds since they started singing following the montage near the end of “Hakuna Matata,” as Simba grows to young adulthood in the span of a chorus and the two plucky pals have an entirely different way of distracting the hyenas beyond dressing in drag and doing the hula that is more realistic but still breaks with reality.
I can’t explain why these elements work as well as they did. Maybe it’s because they represent most of the only new material in a movie that is content to copy the original animated film beat by beat and word for word. While not every joke Rogen and Eichner tell works, at least they are putting in an effort.
The same can’t be said for screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who would be worthy of an Oscar if they gave out awards for Least Adapted Screenplay. I also wonder why nobody said, in the screenings of test-footage I presume occurred as the final cut was being put together, ‘Hold on. Shouldn’t the song “Can’t You Feel The Love Tonight?” be set AT night?‘ Or at least sometime besides the middle of the day?
In the end, The Lion King 2019 is a soulless shell that lacks the spirit that made the original a classic. While the actors try their best to seem animated (pun very much intended) the CGI leaves the whole thing looking as lifeless as a zebra carcass three hours after the vultures are done with it. Just stay home and watch the original.