In the jungle – the mightiest and most beautiful of jungles – the lion sleeps tonight. Covered in golden fur, a flowing mane of royal proportions and a voice that would make a Wolverine purr, it’s the king of all it surveys. And that’s just the computer generated version of Jon Favreau’s latest foray into the back catalogue of The House of Mouse. This time, he’s been tasked with bringing 1994’s seminal classic animation The Lion King to life once more, pushing the boundaries of photo-realistic CGI to new heights for a new generation to enjoy as part of the new wave of “live-action” remakes. But while the new vision is absolutely remarkable to look at, beneath the hood is a vacuous void that begs the ultimate question: Why?
What is most astounding about Lion King 2.0 is that whilst most of the other Disney re-do’s have tried to re-imagine those classic tales – Dumbo, Maleficent, Mary Poppins, even Aladdin tried to blend homage with originality – Favreau’s film is almost identical to what has gone before and, yet, its beating heart is gone, washed away in a sea of gorgeous visuals and picturesque savannahs. It’s, for better or worse, its own worst enemy: the more it follows its path to some game-changing imagery, the further it gets from itself. Every narrative choice, every moment from the original is swallowed up by this visually stunning yet crushingly hollow rebirth that will cause no end of controversy for its very existence. Lions don’t cry real life like cartoons can, but take out Simba’s teary, heartbreaking reaction to his father’s demise and it’s already dead on arrival.
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By following this path, Favreau and co have created a sumptuous film, one that will forever cement its place in cinema for how awe-inspiring and innovative it is, but this isn’t The Lion King. This is a David Attenborough special with few songs that, frankly, don’t get the toes tapping and the heart soaring. There was much written pre-release about the how the lions would talk as we hadn’t really seen any footage and for good reason: it’s awfully awkward and the detachment between performer and character is palpable, like a poorly dubbed foreign language film such is the unbalanced feel.
Even the songs are hopelessly flat – Hakuna Matata, the catchiest of the whole film, is performed with gusto by Donald Glover, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, the images less so: Simba, Timon and Pumba WALK through the song. And that’s the sad point: real lions are beautiful, but they don’t dance like a Disney cartoon, sadly. And whilst Glover and Beyoncé are a dream singing Can You Feel The Love Tonight, it doesn’t work in the film, particularly as it’s performed in broad daylight. You see the problem? Let’s not even open the “Be Prepared” can of worms – that’s a whole story unto itself but suffice it to say that while Chiwetel Ejiofor adds some spikiness, Scar simply doesn’t work here.
Favreau is a marvellous (ha) director, and his work on The Jungle Book is some of his best since his debut with 1996’s Swingers, but where his take on Rudyard Kipling FELT like a CGI-version of a zippy, magical Disney animation, The Lion King simply doesn’t and for all its majesty, it lacks conviction and, most importantly, heart. There’s some solace in the brilliant dovetailing comedic tones of Rogen and Eichner, who revel in being able to play in the Timon/Pumbaa sandbox, but for the amount of screentime they have, it’s only a small but welcome distraction.
When all’s said and done, audiences in their droves will be seeking out The Lion King this weekend and will probably have a great time. But for those who grew up with such an iconic animation, we can’t promise that dreams won’t be crushed nor childhoods not shattered by this endeavour. It should serve as a warning: just because the light touches it, doesn’t mean we want it in our kingdom.
Scott J.Davis | [rating=2]
Animation, Adventure | USA, 2019 | PG | 19th July 2019 | Disney Studios | Dir.Jon Favreau | Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones