Movie Review – The Lion King (2019)

Jon Favreau’s latest CGI-fest is not so majestic.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is a reason why animals shouldn’t speak in the movies. They don’t express emotion the way humans do. It’s why when a movie like The Lion King is made, it should only exist as an animation. This new “live-action” Lion King, for all its visual splendour, is deeply unsettling, because even though the story pulls its characters through a range of emotions, they’re plastered with the same expression from start to finish. It’s like a nature documentary with the animals possessed by highly paid actors.

I think Disney has entered a dangerous phase. Its movies used to have the power to transport us to faraway places. Now it seems more like a time machine stuck on repeat, hurtling us into the past with remake upon sequel upon remake. This “live-action” Lion King is the poorest remake of them all, because since it basically trades one form of animation for another, it’s neither live-action nor a remake, and struggles to be something in between.

Anyway, I’m sure I don’t need to go over the plot. Anyone wishing to see this picture would’ve seen the original, or the hugely successful Broadway musical that followed, or read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The truth is none of it matters, because this Lion King follows the original step by step, down to certain lines of dialogue and shot choices. It offers no room for original thinking. Like Gus Van Sant‘s ill-advised Psycho remake, it’s a brilliant facsimile of a great movie, and irrefutable proof that facsimiles of great movies, no matter how brilliant, are pointless.

So what’s left to talk about? The cast is okay, I suppose. The two best vocal performances come from John Oliver as the hornbill Zazu, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. Ejiofor is really quite frightening. His voice doesn’t register like Jeremy Irons’ from the original, but he finds a cool menace that works for his blank-faced villain. Donald Glover voices adult Simba and almost passes by unnoticed. Beyoncé, as adult Nala, does all her own singing. And we get Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as the hipster outcasts Timon and Pumbaa, who naturally trigger the most laughs. Meanwhile, James Earl Jones probably sets a record for most Nostalgic Voiceover Paycheques. Though at 88, his Mufasa sounds awfully frail.

Alas, I return to the animals’ faces. Their thorough lack of expression cripples the movie beyond repair. Simply consider the moment after Mufasa rescues Simba and Nala from the hyenas, and Mufasa bellows to Zazu, “I’ve got to teach my son a lesson!”. In the original, Simba’s face weakens and he sinks miserably into the tall grass. At once, the animation makes his fear and embarrassment clear. We get nothing of the sort in this new version, because this Simba can’t emote, at least not in the way we need him to. I felt like I was staring at empty faces, into empty eyes. The animals looked convincing. Their mouths moved. I heard their voices, but no one was home. This Lion King is a grave miscalculation.

The Lion King (2019) is available in Australian cinemas from July 17

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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