At The Movies - A Dreadful Lion King Remake Proves the Limitations of Photorealism
By Jordan Bosch
In 1996 my mum took me to Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, a live-action remake of their earlier 1961 animated film. I didn’t much like it, the puppies weren’t as fun or cute as they had been in the original, and Glenn Close’s Cruella scared me too much.
It was also the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, so my relationship with Disney live-action remakes has spanned my whole relationship with cinema itself. And in all that time, though my critical eye has grown substantially more sophisticated, the films have not, and I have yet to see a Disney remake that justifies its own existence.
The latest offering of regurgitated tripe comes courtesy of Jon Favreau, one of the few directors who dared to try something different with his Jungle Book remake in 2015.
But The Lion King is not some fifty year old movie remembered by mostly Disney enthusiasts; it was the pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance, the most successful animated movie of all time, and though everybody knows it was mostly a pastiche of Shakespeare (particularly Hamlet and Henry IV), it was one of Disney’s most original and daring animated classics.
The love of Simba and Pride Rock and the mythic grandeur of the African animal kingdom runs deep, so Disney and Favreau opted instead to simply copy and paste the earlier film wholesale onto a National Geographic aesthetic, unaware that that very aesthetic is the films’ fatal crutch.
So let’s talk about photorealism. It’s a visual effects technique that strives to capture in figures and environments a complete sense of authenticity to a real-world context.
It's the only aspect of The Lion King that is, in a vacuum, impressive.
But it’s also incredibly volatile if the context it’s presented in was not designed for realism.
Emily VanDerWerff wrote a terrific article about the current obsession with realism in contemporary pop culture using this movie as an illustration (I’d also recommend Patrick Willems’ video essay on the subject).
As pertains to The Lion King though the failings in this approach are obvious and numerous:
None of the characters are capable of even basic expressiveness, thus ensuring a near impossibility of engaging with them on any meaningful level.
Most of the musical numbers are pathetic because the format doesn’t support the spontaneity the songs were written for, and to that end there’s no room for imaginative visuals. The flexibility and whimsical sensibility of a world that wasn’t locked into a particular tone is lost (though the writing could be just as much to blame for that). In short it does a lot to rob the film of its character, simple charm, irreverent silliness, and innate thematic potency, leaving behind a husk that’s got no more emotion, creativity, or depth than your average David Attenborough documentary.
It might have stood a chance of achieving something of that on its own terms if it weren’t so strictly bound to its source material.
There are all of two new scenes (both nothing sequences) added to this film, and everything else plays pretty close to the original, albeit with a few dialogue re-workings and even worse jokes for Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen).
There are a couple sequences of padding of course, to fill out the extra half hour, one so desperate it saw fit to animate giraffe dung, and the other elongated just to fit in another pop song that is, as in the recent Aladdin, jarringly out of place. Indeed I get the distinct impression that the only reason Donald Glover and Beyonce were cast at all was for the star power of a “Can You Fell the Love Tonight” duet because the chemistry is not there. Nala’s reunion with Simba plays less like a childhood friend returned from the dead as much as a college boyfriend back from a semester abroad.
But it would be pointless here to mull over comparisons to the original -this is the kind of movie where you could do a scene-by-scene analysis of what doesn’t work in this film and why it did in the 1994 one.
What’s fascinating to me though is where it tries to replicate the look and feel of the 1994 classic and never can.
It’s so committed to realism in its design that famous and powerful scenes don’t have the freedom that made them so impactful in the first place.
A good example is the death of Mufasa, an iconic and traumatizing moment for many a 90’s kid. In utilizing the same shots, pacing, and motion effects but with realistic-looking lions, the scene plays more funny than sad. Simba’s eyes aren’t wide enough to convey the sheer terror of the moment, Scar can’t grin with devious malice, etc. And so the result is a sequence that is deeply unnatural by the rules this movie has set itself.
Mufasa’s spirit communicating with Simba is another example, though in that case the filmmakers at least knew enough to not try to animate his face in the clouds -and yet without it there the scene feels rather empty.
Another vain attempt to recreate the effect of The Lion King is the casting of James Earl Jones once again as Mufasa -the one part the filmmakers’ deemed irreplaceable -even though Jeremy Irons’ Scar was just as iconic (Chiwetel Ejiofor is trying his best here), to say nothing of Rowan Atkinson and Robert Guillaume (though John Kani was easily this films’ best casting choice). But I’m convinced half of Jones’ dialogue is just reused recordings, and nothing new he has to say has quite the weight it had when he was fresh to the part.
This Lion King isn’t as vehement an insult to its source as the Beauty and the Beast remake (except in its very existence making a statement about what Hollywood thinks of animation) -indeed an insult would take more effort, and this is a movie that simultaneously took a lot of effort and none at all.
It’s an animated movie that refuses to be animated, and as impressive as its’ technology is, impressive technology means nothing without a solid foundation.
It's Disney’s ultimate test of whether they can sell anything, no matter how hollow.
In my audience I could hear people behind me predicting the next scenes or lines for about the first forty-five minutes before they got bored of it and began yawning or getting restless. Perhaps audiences do demand a little more.
The only way to have done this movie is a way Disney would never have be brave enough to attempt -and that would be by the Julie Taymor approach, with the same aesthetic of the stage show but shot in the actual Serengeti.
It would be a form of experimentation the studio hasn’t attempted since Fantasia, but it would also be completely unique and mesmerizing.
Hell, I’ll take the uncanny and bewildering style of Cats, the trailer for which played ahead of this film.
Because I look at 2019’s The Lion King and all I see are the dozens of writers, animators, VFX artists, even music and sound designers not getting a penny for their work being recycled so callously -and that should frustrate you as much as it does me. There’s only one solace for those spurned artists. The 1994 Lion King, like Mufasa, will be a part of me for the rest of my life (what can I say, it was one of my formative Disney movies), as it will for everyone it’s touched in its twenty-five years, where this New Coke of a movie won’t have the lifespan of a year; and one day the sun will set on the cynicism that produced it.