The Lion King (2019) can be summed up by Jeff Goldblum. Yes, you read that sentence correctly – Jeff Goldblum. In a pivotal and ethical scene from Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) professes this infamous line:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Now, of course, Disney are not scientists in this situation (although we shouldn’t be giving them ideas in case they want to face map you into a Disney movie eventually), but to be blunt, the utilisation of their technology is limitless. It’s hard not to feel impressed by their stunning capabilities when ‘de-aging’ (for example) has been perfected to a high standard from Tron Legacy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales to their subsequent MCU films in Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Ant-Man (and its sequel) and even Avengers: Endgame. And their achievements with The Lion King (2019) are a photorealistic ‘level-up’ in animation that’s comparable to BBC’s Planet Earth. All that is missing is David Attenborough’s comforting and dulcet tones to seal the magic.
With Disney’s accelerated pursuit to turn their animated classics into live-action (with exception of The Lion King being a sophisticated animated production – but you get the point), their intentions are clear. For this current generation of Disney-fied kids, this would be ‘their’ Lion King, and already in 2019, we’ve seen the releases of Dumbo and Aladdin with Mulan and The Little Mermaid to follow shortly in their footsteps. However nostalgically-driven they are in fulfilling that goal, by that logic, it doesn’t escape the ‘cash grab’ sentiments, and The Lion King is no exception from that argument. For a film that has all the cultural class and majesty, remaking a film that was ‘practically perfect in every way’ (if Mary Poppins wrote the review) seemed folly. The benefit of the doubt was given to director Jon Favreau, who took us by surprise with The Jungle Book in negotiating the balance between nostalgia and fresh perspectives. But judging by this effort, this was a massive ball drop.
This is an important thing to mention – this is not about my obvious love of the superior original and my youthful tales of ‘rinsing out’ my VHS tape as I played the film on repeat. Nor, is this about the ‘shot for shot’ comparisons between the original and the 2019 version. It’s not about the star power that Beyoncé or Donald Glover brings as the biggest stars on the planet, or despite the brilliant gravitas of Chiwetel Ejiofor, he cannot hold a candle to the sinister and Machiavellian sneers that Jeremy Irons had in abundance with Scar. The reality is the 2019 remake is a soulless endeavour that is more about style than substance.
Even when the intentions have merit, what The Lion King demonstrates is its showmanship ability to push the boundaries of technology. The results are crisp and beautifully stunning – a sure-fire front-runner for the Oscars. But where the cynicism overwhelms you like a fevered dream is its lack of justification towards its existence. In a desperate need to showcase its ‘wow factor’ as if it was scrolling through Instagram for likes, it shows you what is possible and what they can do, but not the emotional need to make all of its technical brilliance connect.
That emotional connection is vital. There’s a stark difference between say Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales versus Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner’s 2049 where one instance was a contrived plot device to show off a de-aged Johnny Depp versus a former Blade Runner being offered an emotional reunion (and rejection) of a clone version of his lover. Where Blade Runner 2049 excels in that digital argument (both literally and philosophically) is that there are limitations in the design, and unless you’ve captured its heart and soul, then it’s nothing but an empty imitation.
Moving swiftly in the direction of Disney animation, I would always think about the impact of the late, great Robin Williams. When cast as the Genie in Aladdin, the term ‘above and beyond’ doesn’t go far enough! His ‘larger than life’ improvisations were so impressive that the Disney animators captured his eccentric performances as part of the film. Of course, there are massive advantages to animation over live-action creations, but it’s amazing how the small details can give a film that power (hence why the animated classics still reign supreme). Compare that to the hyper-realistic creations from 2017’s Beauty and the Beast for example, and you have visually impressive household objects but are strangely devoid of personality. None of the creative decisions felt genuine and like some strange déjà vu (as if lessons weren’t learnt from that experience), the same issues plague the latest graduate from the House of Mouse. For a film that thematically recognises family, identity and cultural legacy, 2019’s greatest sin is its failure to carry the same emotional weight as its predecessor. So as much as the talented ensemble cast do their best, the strict realism of the animation and its lack of dynamic facial expressions does them no favours at all.
While the story performs as expected, that emotional absence and disconnection are noticeable along with its trudging runtime. Songs suffer the greatest, unable to balance between the fun and adventure alongside the physics of animal behaviour. Be Prepared is a truncated mess and loses its evil malevolence. I Just Can’t Wait to be King doesn’t pack the same vivid punch as the song suggests. Beyoncé’s SPIRIT popping up halfway through the film is a jarring new addition, and it’s not the only one. Timon (Billy Eichner) singing Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast only sparks questions whether Disney considers their live-action adventures as a cinematic universe or that somehow Timon had access to the film – who knows, but as a distracting, out-of-place joke, it was and had no business being there.
As much as we should celebrate the advancement of female empowerment, there’s nothing worse than seeing a film trying to be culturally and socially relevant when the motion is forced. Similar to Avengers: Endgame where all of the female Avengers united perfectly in sync to show their force, however great that moment was (and I still want that female Avengers film), but it’s also a contrived way of symbolising female solidarity that supposedly makes up for Marvel’s lack of female represented films throughout the years until recently. Here, it’s represented in Nala’s request of “Are you with me lions?” which is just a motion shy of Beyoncé breaking into a song and dance of Run the World (Girls). While I accept it’s a line that gives more to Nala’s Queendom, but pictures can ‘paint a thousand words’ and saying that line is a lack of confidence that was spelt out instead of trusting its visual storytelling.
Removing the rose-tinted glasses, The Lion King boxes itself in a corner, trapped by the constraints of its realistic and over-indulgent animation in a forgettable, shallow exercise that solely relies on our nostalgia as if that was enough to give it a free pass. Even the usually reliable Hans Zimmer’s score couldn’t stretch beyond the familiar, and I don’t blame him – perfection was already achieved in 1994! The 2019 vision lost its focus, lacking the charm and magic by concentrating on photographic realism of the African plains instead of understanding what made the original so highly regarded in the first place. Considering that Disney was founded on the imaginative power of fantasy aka ‘the most magical place in the world’, then this represents a regressive statement of that promise.
The Lion King should have been on the list of untouchable films, and the severe pointlessness of this version is there to be seen. Save your money and your emotional investment – this is not a film worth roaring to the stars about.