“The Lion King” remake chose realism over heart
This live-action remake looks and feels like a nature documentary
Jul 19, 2019
It’s the third live-action Disney remake of the year (following Dumbo and Aladdin) and might have been one of its most anticipated. It’s not surprising, as The Lion King is one of the most well-loved animated films of all time, and its theater equivalent being the most successful staged musical, ever. There’s a lot of love for the story of little Prince Simba and his journey to take his rightful place in the Circle of Life.
A Disney classic
This remake of The Lion King is a near-identical recreation of the animated film. If you’re hoping to revisit the story you loved in childhood, then you’ll definitely get that with this film. It starts with the iconic “Circle of Life” sequence where the animals come to greet newly-born Simba, save for Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) brother who doesn’t think much of Simba. He wants to rule over the Pride Lands, and the birth of a prince means he’s another living creature away from his goal.
Young Simba (JD McCrary) is naturally curious about his surroundings and eager to prove himself no longer a cub. Easily tricked by Scar to visit a forbidden area of the land, he and Young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) encounter scheming hyenas who have been banished from the Pride Lands and had to be rescued by Mufasa.
Scar teams up with the hyenas to murder both Mufasa and Simba, inciting a wildebeest stampede. Simba runs away in the aftermath and befriends a meerkat and warthog duo (voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen respectively) where he learns to live without worry. He grows up with them, and his carefree life is disturbed when a now-grown Nala (Beyonce Knowles) comes looking for help after Scar’s takeover has ruined the Pride Lands. It takes being reminded of his father before Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) returns to Pride Rock to confront Scar. An epic battle between lions and hyenas ensue.
A high-tech endeavor
In this film, (directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau) with its notable photo-realism, the darker elements of the film get even darker. The animals also behave as close to their natural behavior as possible, and we see just how dark and ruthless nature can be. We don’t really see much of the violence of course—it’s still a children’s film—but animals ripping each other apart while fire surrounds them wouldn’t be out of place in a war movie marketed towards adults (The Lion King is rated PG).
The realism in this live-action remake might be the best and worst thing about it. It is so technically well-made that it looks as though filmed in the wild when it is actually completely CGI. It’s a showcase of how far film technology has come in the last 25 years since the original came out. Some of the scenes, especially those that involve wide shots of the African savannah were spectacular. The detail of every animal down to the fur was so well-made, it’s hard to believe that none of it was real.
Getting too real
This quality comes at the expense of its characters conveying emotions. It’s simply unnatural for these hyper-realistic animals to show human emotion, which is a notable obstacle with The Lion King’s very human story. We don’t see the anthropomorphism required of Simba to show what he lost, or the fear of the lions as their home is desolated by over-hunting. The result is that the emotional arc of the story—the very thing that made it indelible in pop culture—leaves audiences wanting.
With its commitment to look as real as possible, it also looks like a nature documentary. Unlike colorful animated films precisely made to attract young eyes, this film lacks that fundamental cartoonish magic that will make its young audience sit, watch, and take in the story.
The entrance of Timon and Pumbaa somewhere in the middle of the film does inject fresh energy in the movie. They’re given plenty of space for comedic banter and one-liners, and Simba becomes a more fun character to watch when he’s with his buddies. The iconic songs are also still in the film, felt a little bizarre with animals behaving how you would expect them to behave, yet also singing about falling in love with each other.
Same old story
Giving The Lion King the live-action treatment may be divisive at best, the Lion King you know and love is very much in-tact. Scar’s Shakespearean villainy, Simba’s heroic triumph, Timon and Pumbaa’s comic relief double-act, the African chant at the beginning of ‘The Circle of Life’, even iconic shots such as Young Simba’s tiny paw on Mufasa’s big one, and the trio looking up at the sky and wondering what stars are—it’s all there.
With its close similarity to the original film, it begs the question if the live-action remake was necessary at all. It does show audiences what film technology can do, but in terms of the simple storytelling that allowed Simba’s tale to shine through, that was already achieved in 1994.
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