Review - The Lion King
Another year, another one of Disney’s live action re-makes. Directed by Jon Favreau, the man who brought us The Jungle Book to live action.
With a proven track record of creating films full of character and fun, it seemed like a perfect fit for him to take on this project, especially considering that The Lion King is a lot of peoples’ favourite Disney film. Surely meaning it’s the one that needs to be done justice? So does it succeed?
An important thing that I need to establish before going deeper into this, is that it’s very hard to review this as its own film. The re-make is extremely similar to the original in a borderline shot for shot retelling (with the exception of dialogue changes and one additional scene) so this film can only really be judged by the differences and interpretations of those scenes. Not to mention that due to the popularity of the original, it is borderline impossible to watch this without thinking of those scenes, characters and performances.
So throughout this review, I will discuss this film as a film and a re-make to satisfy both types of audiences potentially going to see this film. Although brief spoiler: unfortunately it fails on both counts.
When the film was first announced, one of the major elements of discussion was the visuals. Credit where credit is due, not only do the animals look amazingly realistic, but the film lovingly recreates popular shots from the original with the CGI to ease in audiences, such as the entire sequence for The Circle of Life.
It can be argued that there are too many times where the effort was placed on these scenes instead of expanding and developing new ideas for the film, but I won’t deny I had goosebumps when Pride Rock was revealed for the first time. Sadly this was the only instance of this happening.
The environments of the film look fantastic, but are horrendously undercut by several factors: camera work, editing, and a lack of atmosphere.
The first shot of the film is silent for several seconds before we hear the glorious sounds of The Circle of Life, but the shot is completely cluttered with trees and plants, with the sun rolling high on the sapphire sky purely in the corner of the screen, with one of the smallest suns ever put to film.
That was the one shot that needed to capture the epic majesty of the original and it didn’t. Major set pieces throughout suffer with this same problem of bad edits and timing issues.
The elephant graveyard, the canyon stampede and the final fight sequence; all suffer from issues that draw you out of the scene, and even rob them (both serious and humorous) of any emotion. Often making the film just look like a wannabe nature documentary.
The one creative choice that was clever was how they handled Mufasa in the clouds. Instead of his face outright appearing, he flashed in and out with lightning. Sadly this one effect wasn’t enough to look past a series of emotionless set pieces.
The same can be said for the animals. The Lion King was always going to run the risk of ‘how much emotion can we make real animals portray’ and it shows.
There are times where the character dynamics are strong (mostly provided by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s Timon and Pumba) but the dead pan expression of the real animals don’t convey this at all. Even the body language involved are simplistic.
Compared to the original’s cartoony designs which allowed all the characters to be dynamic and flexible (basically freeing them to have actual facial expressions). At times, the designs are too realistic, making it harder to relate and enjoy these characters.
Zazu is just a scary looking bird in this film.
Any and all confrontation scenes just became boring because it became difficult to fully feel the emotions, unless you remembered the emotions from the original. A lot of this came sadly from the direction.
Many of the performances in this film are very quiet and subtle. There are no outbursts, not many raised voices at times, and it was a really subdued feeling. It just didn’t work. The easiest way to evaluate this is looking at the one cast member who exists in both versions: James Earl Jones.
The delivery of his lines was speech-like, not even like dialogue . I don’t blame him as this is common with many of the actors, Beyoncé, Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor to name a few.
Purely by watching Earl Jones’ scenes of his from the original and the re-make, you can notice a distinct lack of emotion resonating throughout his lines, which is a great disappointment, especially for scenes such as Mufasa scolding Simba for his actions in the Elephant Graveyard.
The writing of various characters also doesn’t help. Character re-writes for Zazu manage to create the largest sin of this film: making John Oliver unlikable.
Zazu takes moments to speak at inopportune moments and it gets frustrating having to listen to it. John Oliver is a treat to listen to, but only when he is funny. These lines are generally awkward and clunky.
Timon and Pumba also suffer from this, turning their simple puppet-esque relationship in the original, into two frat brothers bickering (only saved by their funny delivery).
The fact that I now have the memory of Pumba actually saying “farted” in’ Hakuna Matata’ is one I hope to forget soon.
Another issue is the significant pacing issues, simultaneously removing important scenes and moments whilst extending needless ones. ‘In the Jungle’ did not need a full animal chorus backing it up.
We did not need to see the extensive journey of a clump of hair (including being eaten by a giraffe and excreted out to later be driven around by a dung beetle). And we certainly did not need to see why Nala left the group in a tensionless escape scene.
Moments of casual pacing and natural interactions are replaced with ‘next plot point, jump’ and so on. It was an exhausting experience.
One crucial scene that gets cut and basically changes the entire point of the film, is the interactions with Simba and Rafiki.
In the original, Rafiki was a lot more eccentric and meant that we got the great scene of him hitting Simba with a stick, detailing the idea of 'the past can still hurt but you but you can learn from it' signifying one of the strongest moments for Simba's development.
That doesn't happen. Instead the emphasis is placed firmly on 'you are my son' and it means that Simba's character doesn't operate in the way he actually should. This change is baffling as it removes a lot of motivation, lending more credence to the idea that this film is purely following the plot threads of the original, but not in what they actually mean.
One of the areas that had me particularly intrigued going in was the music. There are a lot of fantastic background themes, songs, and a wider song collection from the Broadway show that could have been utilised here. While not many changes exist, the familiarity here, that is appreciated. But what was not appreciated, were the significant changes to certain songs.
Be Prepared is widely considered one of the best villain songs, not just in Disney, but in wider pop culture. So to hear it being what I can only describe as bastardised by changing lyrics, shortening the run time and having an uncharismatic singer monologue got throughout without any of the striking visuals of the original is outright infuriating.
I just can’t wait to be King loses all of its energy with a lacklustre display of animals running around.
But the biggest song issue was Beyoncé’s new song- Spirit. Tonally, it clashed hard against the film. Seeing Simba running through the desert in what’s meant to be a really powerful scene to a fairly generic song lost all meaning. The African beat of the backing track, with overpowering vocals with lyrics that scream ‘Top 40’ just isn’t The Lion King.
If you have never seen the original animated film, there might be somethings here to enjoy. You might lose yourself in the visuals from time to time or enjoy the comedic antics of the side characters, or you might even enjoy it purely for the music. But for those who love and grew up on the original, just go and watch it again instead.
The Lion King is a weak film on its own, but to carry the association of the original makes it a disaster.
With sub-par acting caused by watered down direction, awkward design choices, and a longing for what came before it, the viewing experience plummets from mild concern to outright fury and despair.
The sad thing is I really wanted to love this film, but sadly I cannot feel the love tonight.