‘The Lion King’ review: Be prepared to be disappointed

“We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” — A memo from then-Paramount (and future Disney) CEO Michael Eisner, 1981

Film critic Gene Siskel often used the following question as a barometer of a films success: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of these same actors eating lunch?”

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With all due respect for Siskel, here’s my question after watching the 2019 computer-generated (not live action, not animated) remake of Disney’s “The Lion King”: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of how the film was made?”

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My answer is a resounding “no.” I would love to watch an in-depth documentary about the technical choices and story choices that were made in order to make this film, especially after reading this in Wired about how the crew used virtual reality to create the Pride Lands:

In order to block out a scene, the filmmakers would put on their headsets and figure out exactly where the cameras and lights would go to best capture the action, using handheld controllers to move the virtual equipment around like chess pieces. Then, real-world camera operators in the real-world volume would “shoot” the virtual environment by moving their tracked real-world viewfinders around—movements which were mirrored by the virtual cameras in the virtual environment. Two layers of reality, meatspace motions capturing digital dailies.

So, yes, as a purely technical exercise, as a show of the House of Mouse’s might, as an example of how far we’ve come with what we can do with ones and zeroes, “The Lion King” remake is a landmark event. It’s an outstanding film that will be studied for years to come for its revolutionary shooting techniques and for its ability to cross through the uncanny valley and come out alive in the Pride Lands. Every cat hair caught in the breeze and every drop of water is fantastically rendered. I spent the whole film thinking I was watching a nature documentary. Every shot looks entirely real.

But that’s the problem. While this new “Lion King” roars as a visual feast for the eyes, it can’t come close to capturing the magic of the original.

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As an update to 1994’s “The Lion King,” this remake is dead behind the eyes, just like the fake animals that populate the fake Serengeti where this film is set. This is very nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the animated original, much like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

All color and exuberance has been stripped from the original in exchange for a poorly-dubbed episode of “Planet Earth” where the animals don’t even emote as much as real animals, and any additions aren’t better, they’re just…more.

It’s one thing to have Simba (a muted Donald Glover) and Nala (a contained Beyoncé) “feel the love tonight” when it’s at night and you can see the emotions on their faces; it’s another when they’re running during the day just looking like regular lions. This film is so lifeless Beyoncé can’t even save it, though she did curate a pretty cool album inspired by the movie, a la Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Panther” album.

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Where the original “I Just Can’t wait To Be King” featured a topsy-turvy stack of animals and a colorful backdrop, the new one features Simba and Nala just…running.

Same with “Hakuna Matata” (although Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are this film’s MVPs as Timon and Pumbaa, who add some life into the back stretch of the film).

And Scar has transformed from a mustache-twirling villain to a revolutionary incel despot who is much more angry than the original (seriously, there’s a subplot about how Scar resents Mufasa because Sarabi picked Mufasa over Scar). “Be Prepared” goes from a devilish piece of character development to a B-side Leonard Cohen dirge.

I also got a weird sense of déjà vu while watching it; I’m so familiar with the original that I can still recite scenes from memory, and hearing different actors recite the same lines with different cadences was like looking at some funhouse mirror version of my childhood. Ditto for the scenes where James Earl Jones reprises his iconic role as Mufasa; hearing the same person do a different take on an old role nearly broke my brain.

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And while I’m not writing this to whine about how my childhood was ruined (I can just watch the original any time I want), I am sad about how the nostalgia of my generation is being flagrantly commercialized for profit. Let’s be honest, this remake was not made for the children of millennials. It was made for adult millennials who wanted to chase a bit of their childhood.

So far it’s worked. Box Office Mojo reports that the remake has had the highest-ever July opening for a movie, and as of this writing it’s made $185 million, giving it the best-performing opening weekend of any Disney remake.

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But the 1994 “The Lion King” is still a fondly-remembered classic 25 years later. If the remake is to be remembered in 2044, it won’t be for its emotion or wonder; it will be remembered for its technical achievements.

My rating: 1.5 dead lion eyes out of 5.


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