Over the course of my career in analyzing and critiquing film, I would be lying if I said I haven’t come across many people who have questioned me and my line of work, specifically in regard to the material I tend to focus on. Questions like, “Do you only review ‘big’ movies?,” “Why do you get angry at kids’ movies?,” and “Trevor, why are you talking to yourself?!?”
To answer: A. I’ve reviewed plenty of smaller movies in my time (see my backlog). B. I get angry at these kinds of movies because, more often than not, filmmakers think they can get away with being lazy. It’s not hard to assume that the target audience for these films is no smarter than a day-old papaya. Kids are smart, and these movies often leave a lasting impact on who they grow up to be. If you feed a child nothing but trash their whole life, they’ll likely go in the bin along with it as they grow older. To say that schlock like Wonder Park is less accountable for criticism than a film like the latest Men In Black retread or a “prestige” film like Room for Rent is to invalidate the efforts of hundreds of legitimate artists and filmmakers, regardless of the final product. And C? It’s because of movies like The Lion King (2019).
Our Friend is Doomed
Directed by Iron Man and Jungle Book (2016) alumnus Jon Favreau, The Lion King (2019) is a remake of 1994’s The Lion King. The story follows Simba (JD McCrary, Donald Glover), the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only returning cast member from the original film), who eagerly awaits the day that he can claim his father’s title as King of the Pridelands. However, when he gets caught up in the twisted machinations of his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor)…you get the point.
For many reasons, I was skeptical of this film going in. Whether it’s Favreau outright denying in numerous interviews and articles that the film was animated, early footage showing that “realism” meant characters with the emotional range of a ventriloquist’s dummy, or the track record of other Disney remakes I’ve seen (and reviewed), I went in with the lowest possible expectations I could have. However, this film somehow even missed that bar.
Aside from touching on the visual aspect (for now), this movie seems completely determined to not even remotely try to elevate beyond its source material. A prior claim by Favreau that the film isn’t a shot-for-shot remake is only true in the barest of senses, with whatever’s been added or changed is only ‘real’ versions of shots from the original or mindless landscape filler seemingly only there to show off what his tech can do. Going even further, the writing of this film is almost wholesale taken from the original film’s script (with no credit to any of the original Lion King’s crew save for exactly five people who returned for this one), with small exception to the updated comedic stylings of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). However, here, their style of comedy is in the vein of something you’d find on late-night TV: broad, timely, and precociously self-aware. Given that their schtick is comprised of reused zingers from the first time around and what can only be line-o-rama improv between Rogen and Eichner until they found something that stuck, it really does not help.
At least with Dumbo (2019), they actually TRIED to switch things up. This is just ridiculous.
Everything the Light Touches…Goes to Hell
If there is any positive to be found with this film, it comes in the form of Favreau’s decision to present the film in hyper-realistic CGI and make it look as if the entire production was done in live-action. It’s utterly undeniable the effort that has gone into tricking the eye into thinking that what it’s seeing is nothing less than real, and I commend the filmmakers for pulling it off.
That is, until the animals start talking.
Beyond the “Circle of Life” sequence at the start of The Lion King (2019), the movie cannonballs straight into the computer-generated depths of the Uncanny Valley and fully expects viewers to be along for the ride. Practically shot-for-shot from the original film with some added eye-candy filler thrown in the middle to turn what could have been a straightforward eighty-eight-minute ride to a bloated two hours, it’s utterly ridiculous. The movie is constantly at odds with itself, debating over whether or not it wants to be a cartoon or be the edgy, “real” version of the story it’s telling.
There are numerous moments throughout the film where its so-called “devotion” to the original actively hurts the overall quality of the piece. Musical numbers like “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” are all but squandered by the practically emotionless characters, coupled with choreography straight out of an Air Buddies sequel and actors that can’t sing for their lives (Seth Rogen!). In the case of “Be Prepared,” a number nearly cut from the film but kept after fan outcry, it’s effectively nothing more than crummy slam poem with Ejiofor kinda singing near the end. However, the most egregious moment in the entire film comes with the murder of Mufasa, where almost every element in play is so flat and artificial that it literally became a meme in the days leading up to the film’s US release. Heck, at times during this movie I was praying for the camera to pull back away from the characters and ultimately reveal that this whole charade was just an overblown early Super Bowl ad for the 2020 Hyundai Sonata.
It’s through this sheer lack of charm and the inability for the audience to truly empathize with any of the characters that the flaws of the central narrative itself start to bubble up and actively combat against any real attempt to make this film feel like a worthy counterpart, let alone successor, to the original.
Throw the Baby Off the Cliff
To clarify, is there even a point to criticizing The Lion King(2019)? I say this not in jest, but as a legitimate question. Despite all of the severe downgrades made towards what is one of Disney’s most iconic films, analysts are predicting this movie to surely join the billion-dollar clean-plate-club that most of Disney’s releases manage to hit nowadays, and then some. This story resonates with people on a personal level, and that’s not a bad thing! The problem is that this film is effectively a “deluxe” frozen dinner: Sure, it may come with a fancy new tray, Salisbury steak (that isn’t made from horses this time!), and space-age pudding that changes colors when you stir it, but that’s just what it says on the box. After it comes out of the microwave, you may eat it and feel you got your money’s worth, but it doesn’t change the fact that it uses ultimately shallow gimmicks to sell you a bland and forgettable version of a legitimate meal.
But why worry? Why should I care? This movie’s all-but-guaranteed to beat the Disney movie that just beat that other Disney movie from the company they just bought, so why bother fighting something I can’t stop? Timon puts it best: “Life is meaningless,” and so is this movie.
Hakuna friggin’ Matata. What a wonderful phrase.
Featured Image: IMDb
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