Producing a remake of a movie presents a whole lot of issues with regard to audience reception, but one thing that should be on the mind of every filmmaker who attempts it is; is it worth the effort. When embarking on a remake, you have to be aware that you are walking down an already laid out path for you, and sometimes that can inhibit your ability to be creative. Suddenly, you are dealt with the choice of either following the original formula to the letter, or veering off into something different. The best thing that a filmmaker can do when they produce a remake is to allow their version to stand on it’s own, separate from the original. There are plenty of good examples out there of great movie remakes, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), to the Coen Brother’s True Grit (2010), to all those many A Star is Born which seem to always come out every generation. But to be successful, remakes need to either do one of two things; exceed expectations, or milk all the nostalgia for the original that they can get. Sometimes movies that do the latter end up being criticized as evidence of creative bankruptcy, merely exploiting a known property purely as a cash grab. And one studio that is facing current scrutiny in this regard is Disney. For the past decade, starting with Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Disney has been dipping into their library of animated classics and looking at potential ways to remake many of them in “live action.” The action is understandable, given how well these movies have done at the box office, but at the same time, long time fans of the originals are complaining that the remakes being made by Disney lack anything original and it feels to them like Disney is just cashing in on their properties rather than adding anything meaningful to their brand. It all comes back to that question of whether the remakes justify their existence or not, and sadly for many it’s only taken away from their enjoyment of the originals and not added to them.
This year in particular has raised that question even more, as Disney brought three new remakes to the big screen this year; the overall primary tentpoles of their fiscal year. Thus far, the results have been mixed. The first remake was of one of the Walt era classics, Dumbo (2019), with Tim Burton again returning to remake another animated film. The movie was widely panned by critics, and barely resonated with audiences, making it a rare box office dud for the studio. But then, on Memorial Day weekend, Disney released a remake of Aladdin, which many had worried about due to the initially off-putting transformation of actor Will Smith into the Genie via CGI. Though not universally beloved, the movie still found it’s audience and managed to hold strong all through the summer, making nearly $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales as of this writing. But, these were only warm ups to the remake to the undisputed king of all Disney animated classics; The Lion King. If there ever was a movie remake that was sure to get attention, this one is it. The original 1994 classic was a monster hit, becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time upon it’s initial release, and it still holds a strong place in the Disney legacy 25 years later. The only thing is, how do you take a movie with an all animal cast and make it “live action.” Well, I put “live action” in quotations because the answer that Disney found was to use animation of another kind, only this time use it to make everything look like it was in “live action.” Pioneered in 2016 in another Disney remake of The Jungle Book, this new photo-realistic CGI animation tool allowed for actors performances to translate into realistic looking animals, which enabled Disney to retell their version of The Jungle Book, but with a level of visual authenticity that almost mirrored real life. Now, they are taking this same technique and applying it 100% to the world of The Lion King, making everything from the creatures to the environments completely from CGI animation. The only question is, does it do enough to stand on it’s own, or is it animated in all the wrong ways.
If you were a kid who grew up in the 1990’s, the story of The Lion King will already likely be ingrained in your memory. The Pridelands, realm of the wild animals of the African Serengeti, is watched over by the lion king known as Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original). Him and his mate Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have borne a new cub named Simba (JD McCrary) who will one day take Mufasa’s place as king, which is a prospect that doesn’t sit well with Mufasa’s bitter younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Simba desperately wants to prove his bravery, which leads him on a dangerous excursion beyond the borders of the Pridelands, and into the Elephant Graveyard, realm of the hyenas. His run-in with the hyenas puts him in danger, along with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and caretaker Zazu (John Oliver). Mufasa saves them, but the incident bruises what self-esteem Simba has. Meanwhile, Scar has been conspiring with the Hyenas, hoping to use them as a means of eliminating his brother and the future king so that he can take the Pridelands for himself. With the hyenas help, Scar tricks Simba into standing in the middle of the path of a wildebeest stampede. In the attempt to save Simba, Mufasa puts his own life on the line. Simba is saved, but Scar pushes his brother back into the stampede, killing him, out of view of a horrified Simba. Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and Scar convinces him to flee into exile. Though the hyenas are sent to finish Simba off, they give up their pursuit once Simba is out of sight. Simba, completely alone, eventually reaches the outer edges of the Pridelands, beyond the desert sands, and there he encounters two new friends, Timon (Billy Eichner) the meerkat and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) the warthog. They take Simba in and teach him the philosophy of Hakuna Matata, meaning no worries. Years later, a grown up Simba (Donald Glover) reconnects with a grown up Nala (Beyonce), who has escaped the tyrannical rule of Scar, and she tries her hardest to convince Simba to go back and assume his rightful place as king.
Perhaps more than any other remake from Disney, this was going to be the hardest one to get right. Not only is it a logistical challenge making this movie as close to live action as possible, but there’s also the fact that the original movie is so universally beloved and, some would say, untouchable. Now, Disney can indeed take one of their classic films and create a remake that stands well on it’s own. I for one thought the remake to Cinderella (2015) was exceptionally well made, and the remake to Pete’s Dragon (2016) is I dare say an improvement over the original. There are other examples of remakes to classics that, while they come nowhere close to being as good as the original, still manage to be entertaining, like The Jungle Book and Aladdin. And then you have the movies that fail to ever justify their purpose for existing, like Maleficent (2014), Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast (2017). The biggest knock against the worst of these movies is that they merely rehash the original, adding nothing new of substance and exist purely to remind you of their superior originators. My hope was that this Lion King would rise above that, and the fact that Jon Favreau was overseeing it gave me hope, seeing as his Jungle Book remake was one of the more passable ones, and probably the most impressive visually we’ve seen. Sadly, those hopes are dashed almost immediately from the opening seconds of the movie. The film opens with a near shot for shot reconstruction of the “CIrcle of Life” sequence that also opened the original, and though it is impressive to look at, it quickly dons on you the viewer that you are just going to watch the same movie over again with nothing new added. This movie was a crushing disappointment for me, as I saw what was essentially a cover band version of one of the greatest animated films ever made, devoid of all the heart that made the original so special in the first place. Favreau, whose work I usually love, appears to have been told by the powers that be at Disney that he could not deviate one inch away from the formula of the original, and so the entire movie just feels like deja vu.
Let me get right to the absolute, biggest problem with the movie, and that’s the animation itself. The original Lion King uses the medium to it’s fullest potential, which allows for the suspension of disbelief to be more palatable as we watch animals talking and singing and expressing very human like emotions. The exaggeration in expressions is something that we take for granted a lot in animation, because it’s just something that has always been a part of the animated medium. With the squashing and stretching of hand drawn characters, as well as what’s allowed in modern day computer animation, you can make even members of the animal kingdom capable of carrying heavy drama or lighthearted comedy, because it plays out so much in the extreme expressions that animated models can project. However, when a movie goes out of it’s way to stick so closely to true life in the way that it’s characters look, it unfortunately restricts that freedom that animation can allow. That’s what happens in this version of The Lion King, and it is painfully distracting. Here’s the thing with creatures like lions, hyenas, birds, warthogs, and meercats; they all have expressionless faces in real life. They can’t show a range of emotions like human beings can through facial gestures, because their bodies aren’t made for that. Unfortunately, the animators here went too far into the direction of authenticity when it came to creating realistic looking animals, and what happened was that all the characters have dead, expressionless faces. It especially becomes a problem in a moment like Simba mourning over the death of his father. In the original, you felt Simba’s anguish because it was drawn so well on his face, completely with tears running down his cheeks. In this movie, you can hear the pained vocal performance from the actor, but the animated Simba just looks like an empty, emotionless vessel. And that’s just one distracting example out of many.
The animation not only robs the movie of it’s emotional weight because of the loss of expression on the characters’ faces, but it also robs the impact of the vocal performances as well. Disney put together a stellar all star cast for this movie, but unless you knew who all these people were ahead of time, you wouldn’t even recognize their presence in this movie. Donald Glover, it turns out, does not really have a distinctive voice, and he comes off a whole lot less charismatic here as Simba than he does in so many other roles where he’s present both in body and voice. Beyonce fairs a bit better as Nala, who is the only character that’s given a bit more development in this movie, but even she suffers from the lack of emotional range given to her animated character. And though it is pleasing to know that Disney wanted no one else to play Mufasa than the one and only James Earl Jones, it sadly squanders his presence here by just having him read the same exact lines that he read for the character 25 years ago. You can especially hear the passage of time in his voice too, as his vocal performance doesn’t quite have the same power to it. The one saving grace for this movie is, strangely enough, the comic relief. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are perfectly cast as Timon and Pumbaa, and though their digital models are just as stiff as the others, they at least are allowed to act more exaggerated. Their moments are also the only parts of the movie that veer off script from the original, as they rely more heavily on their improv skills to deliver the humor, and it was a breath of fresh air that helped to distract from the lack of originality elsewhere. Even John Oliver gets in a few laughs, again using improvisation to his advantage. The script is credited to Jeff Nathonson, but it probably should have credited the original film’s scribes (Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton) too, since about 80% of the script is exactly word for word the same, which is very distracting in the movie and shows just how little effort was put into making this movie stand on it’s own. If only everyone else was allowed to improvise like the comedians were, then we might have had a more interesting movie.
Essentially, it seemed like the primary concern on the part of Jon Favreau and his team was to show off what they could do with their new animation technology. Apparently this movie was made with a special Virtual Reality process, which allowed Favreau and his crew to create a fully animated simulation that they could enter with VR headsets and shoot like a real movie, choosing shots like they would on a live set. Sure, it’s all impressive and ground-breaking, but when you put all the effort into that and none into the story and helping differentiate your version from the previous one, well then all you’re doing in the end is just making a glorified tech demo. And that’s essentially what happened here. I wonder if Jon Favreau would have been better served taking this style of life-like animation and applying it to an original movie concept; one that isn’t just a remake of something else. I will say that he used it to impressive effect in his direction of The Jungle Book, which did feature some jaw-dropping animation. But that movie had the advantage of a real, live action kid playing Mowgli who could give the audience a reference point to compare the animation with. With The Lion King, there is nothing to offset the expressionless faces of the animals with. Couple this with a script that seemed too afraid to take any chances and the movie just misses the mark at every opportunity. I will say, the environments do fair a bit better. When you realize that every blade of grass, every rock pebble, and every drop of water was rendered through a computer in this film, it does give you pause. We are getting closer than ever to breaking through that uncanny valley when it comes to environmental construction. But, even with that, it still lacks the grandness of Disney’s original. The ’94 Lion King was epic in scope, in ways few animated film have ever achieved, and it’s amazing that the same exact scenes feel less grand the more realistic they are reconstructed. The Wildebeest Stampede for example feels far less grand in the new version. CGI can do amazing things, and bring previously impossible things to life. But what it can’t do is capture the majesty of the painted image through a photo-real lens. It just reminds me of Jeff Goldblum’s line from Jurassic Park (1993), where he said, “You got all caught up in whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should,” and that really explains the folly of trying to make a “live action” Lion King.
It’s hard to say if this is the worst of the Disney remakes. I will say, as disappointed as I was in this film, it didn’t draw the same ire that I had for Beauty and the Beast (2017). That film was not only inferior to the original in every way, it was also unpleasant to look at, with garish ugly designs for all the characters in that film. The Lion King, apart from the appalling, emotionless character animation, the movie is colorful and competently crafted. But, I will say that it feels like the laziest of the Disney remakes that we’ve seen thus far. There was no effort at all to do anything different with this story; it is just the same exact film repeated, minus the heart and emotion of the original. I was frankly stunned by how little this movie deviates from the original. Entire scenes are repeated to the letter, and there are no surprises whatsoever. Beauty and the Beast at least attempted to write some new things into it’s script to make it a little different. They were all terrible ideas, sure, but it was at least some change. If you’ve seen the original Lion King, and I’m sure most of you have, than you probably know every beat of the narrative, and it will all play out exactly the same way in this version. The movie adds nothing, and in fact, it only takes things away in some bafflingly unnecessary ways. The songs especially suffer, because they lack the flights of fantasy that you could get away with in the original. The villain song “Be Prepared” is whittled down to just a short, half-spoken verse, which should really enrage fans who love that particular song. It’s the very definition of a movie that exists solely to make money and play upon our nostalgic memories of the original. You could say that about any of the other Disney remakes too, but at least some of them have justified their existence for being and stood just fine on their own. This one will never, ever replace the original, and I pity the poor person who has this version be their first exposure to the story. Please, just stick with the original. 25 years have not diminished the shine of that classic one bit and even this remake won’t damage it either. Watch it again and forget this new Lion King, because it’s lion’s roar is nothing but a whimper.