The Lion King
And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last, were there a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ’90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying in its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.
I’m hazarding you know the premise and subsequent plot, so I’m not going to labour it (not that I tend to go in for recaps generally). I could only recall the bare outline (and a smattering of songs), so the changes didn’t really matter very much to me – aside from being fairly certain the original picture didn’t run two hours, and that it didn’t feel like it was taking a half hour more than that to finish its business – as opposed to those who’ve seen it tens of times. I was more curious regarding the areas director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson elected not to change, given the manner in which Aladdin successfully seized the opportunity.
It’s particularly notable that, while prides are matriarchal, Disney didn’t have the gumption to turn this into The Lion Queen (too much of a balance to redress); they’re quite willing to show their “wokeness” in glib broad strokes, identifying Nala as a superior fighter to Simba – because that kind of comic book/action movie rationale more often than not amounts to gender progressiveness in cinema – and have the courage to seek help for her oppressed pride… But when she reunites with Simba, her entire argument is that he needs to come back to lead them (the oppressed female lions). Which makes for a picture good and faithful to the title, and Nala a good and faithful future wife who knows her place (Entertainment Weekly, in thrall to Disney’s empty appropriation of progressiveness exclaimed “The female lions are more proactive this time around!” Yeah, within strict limits that reinforce patriarchal definitions, but hey knock yourselves out).
So too, while the original’s mandrill has long been cited for indulging the Magical Negro trope, Favreau’s remake carries that over intact with John Kani voicing Rafiki, the only expressly African sounding character, cloaked in tribal ritual, who also just happens to be the only monkey in the cast. One assumes Disney and Favreau thought they were dutifully addressing imbalances in the original sufficiently through their advocating black representation in the cast, but they’ve still otherwise assembled a group of British or American performers who sound precisely that.
On a thematic level, I was also slightly at odds with the suggestion, by the animal enclave Simba joins, that all life is sacredly anthropomorphic… except for grubs and bugs which can be devoured with impunity (“Slimy yet satisfying”). Sister animation house Pixar might have a thing or two to say about that. Or even just the dragonfly in The Rescuers.
As lacklustre as Nathanson’s attempts to bring the material up to date are, his characterisation of the protagonists is equally sloppy. Not that the performances of either the younger (JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph) or older (Donald Glover – especially anodyne and disappointing – and Beyoncé) Simba and Nala do anything to ameliorate this. Seriously, the Lion King in waiting’s progress to claiming his destiny is a complete snooze, and his vocalisation, from typically wholesome Disney cartoon pup to bland adult is entirely uninvolving.
The casting choices are a mixed bag generally. Returning James Earl Jones’ regal tones as Mufasa suit the photorealist imagery and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s less extravagant reinterpretation of Scar is also a winner (it likely helped that he had a visual guide with actual definition, Scar being the only lion with discernible individuality or character). I’m not remotely a fan of John Oliver, so “adapting” his grating Last Week Tonight monotone, as a replacement for Rowan Atkinson’s distinctive sarcasm, is a complete bust.
Then there’s Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon, the former perfectly cast as a farting warthog; if he’d wooed Charlize Theron in this guise in Long Shot, audiences might actually have gone with the outrageously fantastical conceit of it all. Much as I don’t tend to rate Rogen’s particular brand of endearingly stoned slobbishness, he and Eichner are good value. And when they’re allowed to riff, the movie actually manifests some energy and verve (in particular, after rattling through Hakuna Matata, by which point Simba has transformed into an adult, Timon notes how he has “grown 400 pounds since we started”).
As to the much-discussed uncanny leonine valley of Favreau’s nature doc animal renditions… Well, it made a certain amount of sense in The Jungle Book, where they interacted with an actual live-action character. Here, we just keep coming back to the question, “But to what end?” Aside from an easy billion in box office takings, obviously.
In truth, I had very little problem with the incongruity of these realistic birds and beasts talking, and some of them – aforementioned Scar, Pumbaa and the sinister hyenas – even work rather well. Notably, however, it’s no coincidence that they’re are all allowed more quirkiness, edge or flair, within strict boundaries. One also got the impression, as with the trailers, that Favreau was averse to spending too long on the animals (mostly lions) speaking without cutting away, suggesting a lack of confidence (or editing room second guessing once responses to the trailers came in).
Favreau’s work here is as utterly efficient and journeyman as it gets, standing him in good stead with the Mouse House for the foreseeable. Me, I much prefer his onscreen personality to his behind the camera lack thereof. There are areas here where he entirely drops the ball – casting Oliver, the terrible, cheesy slow-motion death of Mufasa and corresponding zoom out from little Simba’s reaction (so bad, it’s repeated during the climax, just to rub it in). It’s shot-for-shot sourced from the original, where it works by virtue of the animated form. Others where, allowed to have a bit of fun, such as with The Lion Sleeps Tonight, you get a glimpse of a less artlessly well-oiled production.
Again then, The Lion King isn’t bad, but it is redundantly bland, and had me shifting restlessly in my seat for much of the last half; the last time that happened was Godzilla: King of Monsters (which is bad). However, it doesn’t look as if its mediocrity is going to adversely impact its box office, any more than a similarly spineless makeover did for Beauty and the Beast. Nostalgia can overcome a multitude of insincerities.