Never has something looked so photorealistic and felt so false.
Say what you will about the recent spate of live-action Disney remakes, but the better – or at least more interesting – ones have taken at least a few liberties with their source material. Pete’s Dragon completely reinvented the story into a sweet Southern Gothic tale about family, loss, and identity. Even Dumbo, for all its flaws, turned a shorter, problematic cartoon into a half-formed treatise on the corporatization of Disney itself. But then there’s 2019’s The Lion King, a film committed to slavishly, dully recreating a story they already told perfectly two decades ago, only with a greater sense of ‘realism’ (critics have been asked to describe the movie as “photoreal” rather than live action) underpinning it.
Everything about The Lion King feels cynical, right down to each individually-rendered hair on Simba’s head. It’s easy to see why Jon Favreau got the gig; 2016’sThe Jungle Book feels like the beta test for The Lion King‘s full-bore realism, and that one made a truckload of money. Here, though, the original story is retold with frustrating alacrity, beat for beat, shot for shot. Entire sequences (Pride Rock, Hakuna Matata) are ripped wholesale from the original for familiarity’s sake, leaving me wondering whether the original storyboarders got a residuals check.
But this time, it’s not those silly hand-drawn cartoons that are for old people; Disney’s effects team has painstakingly created a version of the Pride Lands with photorealistic lions, wildlife, trees, and environments. And yet, it’s all lit with the flat, oversaturated texture of a DisneyNature documentary, an approach that certainly highlights the landscapes but limits the sense of razzle-dazzle. It may seem unfair to compare the drabness of a walk-and-talk amongst photorealistic lions to the dazzling pops of color the original provides — they’re two different approaches! defenders might say — but Disney invites the comparison with its methodical reenactment of the previous film.
But in making The Lion King “photoreal“, the story becomes less vivid, less expressive. As it turns out, animals aren’t very good actors. When you make them too realistic, you don’t get a performance; you get a simulation. Stare into Simba’s eyes, and nothing looks back. The animals’ expressions are flat, stoic — there’s no attempt to anthropomorphize them outside their human voices and semi-realistic mouth movements. It’s certainly possible to squint your eyes and believe they’re real creatures, but you’ll never be able to connect with them on an emotional level. You can’t share their anxieties or hope for their happiness. With The Lion King, Disney didn’t want to prove they were the best at making movies; they wanted to prove they were the best at making lions.
The voice cast does their damndest to imbue their characters with life: James Earl Jones (in perhaps the most cynical indicator of the film’s redundancy) returns as Mufasa, and young JD McCrary gives a modicum of zippy enthusiasm to young Simba. Chiwetel Ejiofor is in full Idris Elba mode as Scar, though the character’s reduced from an Iago-like manipulator to a screeching, graying incel. Occasionally lifting the proceedings are Billy Eichner‘s Timon and Seth Rogen‘s Pumbaa, mostly through sheer force of charisma (and because their improv-heavy voiceovers serve as some of the script’s few real updates to the material). Donald Glover and Beyoncé, however, get shockingly little to express as adult Simba and Nala – they’re just there to go through the motions, crippled by the inexpressiveness of their characters and the clunkiness of their storytelling.
Disney didn’t want to prove they were the best at making movies; they wanted to prove they were the best at making lions.
Doubly uncanny is the inclusion of the film’s original songs, which clashes messily with the Planet Earth-ifying of Pride Rock. If watching realistic animals speak with human voices isn’t uncanny enough, just wait till you see them trot clumsily through blue-brown plains singing “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or “Hakuna Matata.” Rather than crop up organically in the story, the Elton John-Tim Rice numbers are performed with all the weariness of obligation; their rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is especially awkward (especially since they don’t even wait for nighttime to sing it. Can you feel the love this afternoon?). Even with an extra half hour to play with, the story feels rushed, pouncing onto the next plot point before we get too bored.
The most frustrating thing about The Lion King is that, for all its flaws, for as little as it brings to the table, it’s going to make a billion dollars. You know it, I know it. Familiarity is rewarded, even if there’s $200 million of CGI dumped on top of it. Audiences will mistake “realism” for greater storytelling, and they’ll continue to downplay the imagination of hand-drawn animation as dated. There’s so much more we can do, so many other stories to tell. Heck, we can even tell this story better. But alas, Disney is content to recycle its franchises with little care or reinvention — the new circle of life in the entertainment industry.
The Lion King roars into theaters with all the photorealistic alacrity of a nature doc July 19.