[Critic’s Notebook] ‘THE LION KING’ takes a strange trip down the uncanny valley, plays like a cringe-worthy karaoke show

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James C. Clay // Film Critic

Toying and changing mediums for beloved properties can be a tricky bout to fight for any creative individual. Remaking films is not inherently wrong. Legendary Broadway director Julie Taymor has done it multiple times. She even hit a piece of perfection with her rendition of THE LION KING back in 1997. The issue, however, for many remakes has been the lack of conviction. There seems to be no desire to expand or take creative liberties with what transpired before.

In regards to Disney remakes, what more can actually be said from a critical standpoint? They are accused of being soulless cash grabs from the House of Mouse, and they are void of any artistic credibility and play like bad karaoke on a grand scale. This is valid for Jon Favreau’s new rendition of THE LION KING. Disney’s latest remix follows the 1994 animated original almost beat for beat. Lines of dialogue are recreated, and its emotional elements take audiences on a strange trip through the uncanny valley. The vocal cadence of iconic lines has the aim of achieving a sense of verisimilitude that is in constant conflict with the heightened musical interludes. 

This writer cannot neglect that Favreau is looking to break new ground as a filmmaker and push the potential of this medium. It is a noble effort, undoubtedly, but it wastes potential by arousing the possibilities of creating a world where grounded animal behavior tells a heightened story. From jump street, we were promised an expansive take on the life in the African savannah that celebrated the visuals of the landscape. This was a task that would take years and years to make. Like all Disney tentpoles, this film has a release date that must be held – and seemingly only James Cameron’s AVATAR sequels are obliged with the courtesy of tardiness. 

Animal behavior is wildly complex and extends much further than lips moving, and facial expressions. A house cat – even your golden doodle – communicates with you in more sophisticated ways than smiling or having one single facial expressions. There are ears, a nose, feet, a tail, backs, tongues – all these features contribute in conveying mood. Many reviews of the film are calling the characters “dead-eyed.” While that may be true, the visual effects in this remake do make an effort for characters to emote. Unfortunately, the potential in that arena is wasted in favor of telling the story in a more traditional sense. 

For example, when an animal is panting, it could be a side effect of anxiety. An erect tail with hair standing up can mean they’re in distress. A simple bow can be an invitation to play. Favreau’s film has flourishes of allowing the natural animal behavior to tell the story rather than forcing the Disney beats. In a perfect world, we would have seen the filmmakers take the Disney template and deepen the themes that made the original one of the most celebrated animated films of all time. 

The opener for 2019’s THE LION KING features a jaw-dropping sequence of “The Circle of Life” that’s void of dialogue and features a wealth of different animals who all move in unique ways. It has hints of what this film could have been. The score has a redux by Hans Zimmer, and the song that celebrates the African roots has never sounded more inspiring. 

Simba (JD McCrary), Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) in THE LION KING. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

There are two moments from this sequence that show how animal behavior can convey deep emotion while servicing the story. Rafiki, the shaman-like Mandrill who famously raises Simba above his head, plays out as a singular moment of celebration in the animated version. The remake offers up a keen look into the nuance of animal expression. The moment when Rafiki takes Simba away from his parents to present him to the kingdom shows a concerned look on Mufasa’s face that is absent from the original. Mufasa’s body becomes erect, the face becomes laser-focused, and he begins panting. While this may seem small, it is an incredible moment that shows a concerned parent who has gone through a life-changing moment. This shot shows the wonder this medium has to offer. We see behaviors telling the story, not the story forcing the behavior, which is what happens in most children films.

A smaller moment showcases zebras, antelopes jumping for joy with their bodies flailing and naturally contorting in celebration. The idea of showing these instances is a masterful stroke that the rest of the film fails to achieve. There is no way to know all the problems that need to be solved to accomplish these creative heights, but Disney is not interested in taking risks.

We all remember Scar toying with a little mouse that he has every intention of turning into lunch near the film’s beginning. The remake opens this scene as we follow the mouse scurrying up a rocky terrain into Scar’s cave. We get a sense of the landscape. And after the epic-in-scale opener of “The Circle Of Life,” we are taken down to the ground level. We get a grasp on what it means to be at the bottom of the pecking order. It is a stunning descent into actualizing the circle that Mufasa professes to have such a reverence for. But the exploratory nature of the film is abandoned, almost entirely after the first act.

The world Favreau has created becomes smaller and less detailed as the familiarity of the narrative takes hold. It is as if there is an inherent fear to try something different. (There is a brilliant take on this medium hidden beneath pandering to fans.) While this will undoubtedly become the definitive version for a generation of kids, I’m not so sure it is the fault of the hyper-real animation. It is more so an issue with the direction.

The songs in Disney films give the audience a chance to explore the world with the characters. They provide a kinetic interlude to many scenes that typically just feature scenes of dialogue and a few jokes. For a world that “The Circle of Life” claims “There’s more to see than can ever be seen,” the sandbox that THE LION KING plays in is awfully small and lacks the desire to explore, which coincides with the lethargic depiction of the musical numbers.

THE LION KING – Featuring the voices of Florence Kasumba, Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key as the hyenas, and Chiwetal Ejiofor as Scar, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In any good musical, songs are used to tell the story. It highlight the themes and allows the audience to get a direct line to what the characters are feeling. There was a recent viral post that shows Simba, Timon and Pumbaa singing “Hakuna Matata” that has been lambasted for being boring and void of expression. Be this as it may, the audiences will most likely be happy with anything familiar that they can sing in the car on the way home. It is a shame because so much more is possible. There is very little sense of wonder, or excitement to introduce the audience to new elements in the scenery. This haphazard song delivery ruined Favreau’s take on THE JUNGLE BOOK back in 2016.  

Every musical number (aside from the opener) is rushed. There is a cadence to the songs that are out of sync with the pacing of the rest of the narrative. This is a film people have memorized. It is engrained into millions of brains just like STAR WARS or BACK TO THE FUTURE. It is impossible to recapture that level of majesty. It’s as if the lines of dialogue and lyrics are intentionally flubbed. They a blasé  delivery that can be downright awkward at times. Nala’s line, “Pinned ya again!” lacks feeling. There is no music to her voice. Mufasa growls at Scar in their first moments,“Is that a challenge!” Here, it is casually stated. One can imagine Favreau was looking for his own tonal elements, like a musician looking for the right key in a song. 

It is not about changing the medium, or looking for a cash grab with this remake. It is about lacking a soul deep down. There are many moments to enjoy in THE LION KING, and the critical consensus seems to be a genuine disappointment. There is always room for a retelling of an iconic story. It is the Rashomon effect that can take us to new heights in filmmaking. (Look at the SUSPIRIA remake from last year.) This iteration lacks the conviction for a project that makes a bold statement. The content inside cannot match the creative licenses being taken with the visuals. 

Forget what Julie Taymor did with the Broadway musical. That was a celebration of culture. It has themes that can last for generations. Instead, let’s have Pumbaa fart twice as often. That is guaranteed to make a cool billion. There has been potential wasted that outright permits studios and filmmakers to take the easiest route possible.

THE LION KING is now playing nationwide.