The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

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