Movie Review: The Lion King?

The movie has been out for twenty-five years. Who hasn’t seen it? Expect spoilers.

I’ve been singing ‘Be Prepared’ to myself for the past few days that I have been researching and writing this review on actor/director Jon Favreau’s latest film, which is ironic because the anthem of evil is barely in this movie. Jon Favreau also played millionaire Pete Becker who dates Monica Geller on Friends (season 3, episode 18). Monica ends things with him because he insists on becoming an ultimate fighting champion (season 3, episode 24). The audience gained a visually remarkable experience due to the advancements of CGI technology, but was a pretty screen worth a deflated narrative? Sitting in the theater beside my Service Dog who I thought might like to see the lions too and children who were literally brought in by the busload, (I saw three full-length yellow school buses as I walked inside) I thought I was going to be transported back in time to one of the best experiences of my childhood. That didn’t exactly happen. I wonder what impression the children were left with. For many of them, it may have been their first introduction to this story and these characters. I felt bad about that. This film had one second to get it right. The first note of the opening scene. If they didn’t get the right ”NA” accompanying the African sunrise, I was going to mentally check out. They did it but not immediately. I know this because there was enough time for me to say under my breath; “what the heck?” Then it began.

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba

Sithi uhm ingonyama

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba

Sithi uhhmm ingonyama

Ingonyama

Siyo Nqoba

Ingonyama

Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala

Translation:

There comes a lion, father

Oh yes it’s a lion

There comes a lion, father

Oh yes it’s a lion

A lion

We’re going to conquer

A lion

A lion and a leopard come to this open place

The Lion King (Allers, Minkoff, 1994) is possibly the brightest spark in my childhood, like millions of other millennials. It is a classic tale of spirituality and identity. The 1994 Disney film is a masterwork of directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and writers Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. The Lion King has no equal. The Lion King is the jewel that shimmers front and center embedded in the Disney crown. The Lion King stands alone. The Lion King is king. Why attempt to improve what is perfect? No real reason other than money concealed as nostalgia but before the criticism, let us praise.

What Went Well

Jon Favreau’s 2019 film is a technical masterpiece. It is not live-action by definition. Live-action in filmmaking is action involving real people or animals, as contrasted with animation or computer-generated effects. The Jungle Book released in 2016, also directed by Favreau, is live-action. This film however, is CGI. It is 118 minutes of computer-generated imagery convincing every viewer they are watching real lions living in their natural habitat. When in fact, the animals are not real, neither are the plants nor is the sky or the water. This film is a beautiful dream manifested through the vision of Jon Favreau and his team of visual artists. It is astounding what technology has the power to do in 2019. Each blade of grass, the puff of the clouds, the texture of Pride Rock; every hair in the coat of not only Simba but all the lions in the pride, required immense, tedious detail. This virtual world rivals the reality filmed by National Geographic. “When Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog voiced by Seth Rogen, absent-mindedly scratches his left ear with his hind leg, I confess that I nearly wept. Not because the scene was especially touching or sad, but because of the sheer extravagant craft that had clearly gone into rendering those two seconds of reflexive animal behavior. I was near as moved by the efforts of a dung beetle to propel a ball of scat across a patch of desert. The digital artisans responsible for these images didn’t necessarily have to do it all with such fanatical care, and the fact that they did is surely worthy of admiration.”-The NY Times

The photorealistic look for the lions, hyenas and other African animals was achieved by studying real-life subjects and then meticulously animating their behaviors exhibited in the wild. Lighting was another key component in the film that brought the most lifelike quality out of the CGI creatures. Specifically side-lighting and backlighting. The movie is a pristine example of realism that will likely be studied by filmmakers for years to come. That being said, what makes this movie standout may also be its pitfall.

Changing the style of a timeless piece of cinema, a film in need of no retouching whatsoever, was unnecessary from the start but wouldn’t retelling the famous story featuring real-ish lions be great to see? Yes, in theory. The end product felt like a refined version of those wildlife clips with dialogue dubbed over the animals’ mouths. Real animals using language is Intriguing to think about but when brought to reality, impression ranges from awkward to nightmarish onscreen.

These freaks became those freaks.

8 Things that were (technically) improved

1. That fruit that Rafiki breaks open in the beginning is changed to red roots when he is anointing Simba, which makes sense because the fruit used previously doesn’t contain red liquid. Using the residue of roots, the dust of which cause Simba to sneeze is kinder than deliberately sprinkling sand in the face of a defenseless lion cub.

2. Rafiki has gone from left to right-handed, which makes for consistency later on.

3. Rafiki the wise a baboon, more specifically a mandrill. Mandrills do not have tails, which is why the 2019 version of the character had no more than a stump on his rump.

4. The accuracy of lion eye-color is correctly portrayed in the remake. Beginning with blue when they are cubs and then maturing to brown.

5. The animals not native to Africa were removed. Such as the giant anteaters, hanging monkeys, and the gofer Zazu talked to.

6. Leaf-cutter ants are only from the Americas yet they remain in both films primarily to keep up the circle of life theme.

7. As determined as he might be, Timon, a meerkat, could not realistically lift the paw of a lion up above his head so identifying Simba as a lion by looking at his teeth was a genuine approach.

8. Zazu actually says “your majesty” in the 2019 remake whereas in the original, the red hornbill mouths the words but there is no sound.

Praise For the Cast

Surprising standouts among the voiceovers: Timon (Billy Eichner) who played Craig on Parks and Recreation, Sarabi (Alfre Woodand), and adult Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) The voice of Beyoncé both singing and speaking, is unmistakable. The life she provided for the lioness was well done, neither tremendous nor terrible, simply well done. The pop-star did effortlessly outshine the vocals of fellow singer, Donald Glover who voiced adult Simba, as she would almost anyone. The mismatch was noticeable but not uncomfortable. I thought I wouldn’t be able to hear the feisty lioness Nala without picturing Beyoncé. Thankfully, she was not the distraction I assumed she would be. Nala does get more screen time in this film but not too much more. It would have been nice to hear more from Alfre Woodard’s Sarabi, originally voiced by Madge Sinclair who passed away in 1995. Woodard spoke in a way that expressed an assured strength. It would have been a pleasure to hear additional dialogue.

John Oliver’s rendition of Zazu is another honorable mention, almost as good as the original uptight bird voiced by Rowan Atkinson. Is that what the people wanted to hear though? New voices almost as good as the originals or should they have taken all the characters’ vocals in a new direction as they did with Scar voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor?

In my opinion, Donald Glover was the best new voice. He played a much more pleasing version of adult Simba than the unconvincing original, Matthew Broderick. The worst new contributor was Seth Rogan (Pumbaa.) He turned out to be the distraction I thought Beyoncé would be. Pumbaa is already an abrasive personality, he didn’t need the doltish laughter of Seth Rogan. It will be hard to view the actor as anything other than a warthog from here on out. Additionally, his lack of singing ability may come off charming to some but I found it to be as grating as every other bit of dialogue he had. On the opposite end, Billy Eichner voicing Timon brought refreshing levity to the bleak sometimes slow-moving African landscape. Best for last of course was the legendary low-pitch of James Earl Jones who made his triumphant return as the regal Mufasa. The praise for this film ends there. This was not The Lion King, this was The Lion Thing.

Where They Went Wrong

Too Real

Pairing dialogue originally said by expressive cartoons onto the faces and bodies of surreal looking big cats is disturbing. Facial expressions of lions don’t venture far beyond a yawn, a roar or an act of aggression. Humans, however, rely heavily on facial expressions for communication, which is why the animated characters in The Lion King were anthropomorphic. Unfortunately, with realistic lions, there’s not much to read in their faces. Their eyes looked eerily real but were empty. Their eyebrows didn’t bounce when they were curious, they didn’t smile when they were happy, an expression that would have been terrifyingly full of teeth. These lions whimpered but they didn’t cry the familiar tears we remember from the royal cub. The lack of humanness left the audience unable to connect with this beloved pride. The voiceovers were was top notch but they couldn’t make up for blank faces. Another negative to the surrealistic style of the film was that the lions and hyenas were scary. The type of scary that makes you want to run the way Simba did after his uncle told him to.

The animals as well as the setting were earth tones of yellow, green, gray and brown. There is no vibrancy. These lions don’t look loud, they look like real lions wearing fur that matches the dry grass they crouch down and hunt in. CGI Scar looked like an underfed rug. The obvious goal was to make him appear different than his robust brother and he is smaller in stature than Mufasa, but did they have to make him look mangy?

The real Scar wears his appearance proudly. His black mane and fur behind the knees signifying that he is a literal sexy beast full of testosterone. His eyes were a bit more feline than Mufasa, and who could forget the mischievous smile he wore better than The Joker? CGI Scar does have the signature mark over his left eye but it’s hard to distinguish a dark gray line in dust colored fur. His drab appearance saps the power out of his Shakespearean speech.

The hyenas are the stuff of nightmares. It’s bothersome to see them up close. The hyenas are not a sight for sore eyes in The Lion King either but their goofy personalities helped balance out that intensity. This film offers them no favors, they’re gross.

That thing looks like something out of The Walking Dead.

Mufasa is a majestic creature, his aesthetic was impressive and his character came across best because his face isn’t shown as much when he is talking. The lion cubs are adorable but apart from being little and fuzzy, they bring no emotional appeal to the screen. Everything looks ultra-realistic but everything blends together, making most of the scenery as uninteresting as Scar appears. Moving in favor of the realistic approach, why would Simba be able to eat and survive on bugs? Since he did object to his natural carnivorous nature, he should have been skinnier than his uncle.

Lack of Emotion

The Lion King plays the strings of the heart like a harp and did not need thirty extra minutes to have such a lasting impact. The Lion Thing forgot what feelings are. The lack of emotion is cringe-worthy throughout the entire nearly two-hour film but it hurts the most when the scene everyone has been scarred by-no pun intended-occurs. Mufasa falls off the cliff and Simba witnesses the death of his father. I have to fast-forward through it to this day. You see the evil in Scar’s eyes, the fear in Mufasa’s and then the terror in Simba’s. It’s eviscerating. I planned to look down this time around too but I didn’t and then it happened and I had no reaction. It was awful watching a realish lion do that to another realish lion but I felt no sadness. Then little Simba yelled, “No!” Which should’ve brought the tears out of me except there was nothing in that furry cub’s eyes to react to, just a human voice coming out of small, black lips. I did cry when the dust is settled from the stampede and Simba tried to get his dad to wake up. That was the worst. The child in me had to cry. I probably broke down at that scene because I had no vacant eyes staring at me but instead, the flat ears and slumped shoulders of a now fatherless cub.

The eyes say so much when it comes to emotion for humans. This is probably why the creators of The Lion King made the eyes of these predators look human, giving them pupils, an iris and whiteness that would sometimes turn yellow, so humans could connect with what felt real. Jon Favreau should have had this famous stampede scene created in CGI first and if everyone in the room wasn’t sobbing, they should have known that they did it wrong.

What They Cut

The nature documentary visuals were possible to overlook until it was clear that certain parts of the plot were not going to be included. Such as Rafiki, the crazy, wise monkey. He was in there but he didn’t have to be. They could have put a human in his place and justifiably called it live-action. Rafiki is one of my favorite characters but so much of his dialogue was eliminated. He didn’t speak much, he was mostly mumbling Swahili. I don’t remember hearing the notorious “santasana-squash-banana.” He barely reacted when he learned about the death of the king and his cub. The biggest let down with Rafiki was that they left out the scene I still reflect on when dealing with life’s problems:

How could they cut this? They recreated nearly every other scene shot-for-shot. Why would they cut out flawless wisdom? Also, where was his stick? The stick with the melons is an essential item to Rafiki but in The Lion Thing, he doesn’t even have it in his hand until the end. To the children who knew no Rafiki before this one, watch the animated version to see the real nutty baboon.

They decided to sing ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’ during the day. Hard one to mess up but they did it. Also, in that scene where Nala uses her come-hither stare, recognized later in the rewatching of adulthood, was cut out. The spirit of Mufasa is not seen in the clouds even though this is foreshadowed to his son while Mufasa was still on earth. We only hear his voice and it’s confusing because CGI Simba walks into the water, looking into the sky and we see no spirit of the king. Another profound moment of emotion sorely missed. How do we know what to do if we don’t remember who we are?

They cut the song ‘Be Prepared’. The weak reference I did hear to what is arguably the best ballad Disney produced, was something I almost missed entirely. It left me thinking, wait, was that it? It’s presented in the manner of bad poetry. Pretty much all that is offered for this song is a few minutes of a grundgy lion yelling, “be prepared!” Perhaps Chiwetel Ejiofor has no proper singing ability but shouldn’t that be a requirement for doing a film like this? I was not prepared for that signature song to be an insult to the music itself. An apology would be appreciated. The voice of Jeremy Irons was sorely missed is the grandest understatement in this entire review.

The Lion Thing also expanded lines of dialogue unnecessarily, further eroding the impact of quality storytelling. Also, an extended scene involving a tuft of Simba’s mane was added. We watch that fur float everywhere before reaching Rafiki, signaling that he is alive. It involves leaf-cutter ants like the ones in the beginning to maintain the circle of life theme but it was mainly there for people to marvel at the technical details in the plants and animals and poop. It was beautiful to watch and a complete waste of time. If we hadn’t had to watch fur float around for five minutes we could have heard the best Disney villain belt out ‘Be Prepared’. Scar’s anthem is pivotal. It reveals how masterfully manipulative and charismatic he truly is. Since happiness and sadness were unrealistic to put on the face of a realistic lion, charisma would be in the realm of impossible. What is Scar without his charismatic flare? A morose, unkempt murderer.

The Take-Away

Calling this film a remake does not seem as fitting as referring to it as a high-def version of copy and paste. The Lion Thing made me think, is was displayed onscreen reflective of society? Living in the digital age with films like Midsommar (Aster, 2019) and now this project, it is proof that we prefer beauty over substance more than before? Are we willing to sacrifice the depth of storytelling for a couple hours of something dazzling? True or not, The Lion Thing made me love The Lion King all the more. I was reminded of appreciation I have held for philosophies like Hakuna Matata and the words of Rafiki that I first heard as a kid. I am pleased to have learned about death being a part of the circle of life from Mufasa and knowing that I will forever be watched over by royalty. It reminded me also, to remember who I am and that He lives in me. My intrigue and compassion for Scar and others who are misunderstood was revitalized. Our enemies do make us stronger. Watching the work of Favreau affirmed just how much I love Scar. Perhaps if he gone and found his own pride he would not have been so preoccupied with domination. Much like Hitler, who is alluded to under Scar’s regime in The Lion King. What if Hitler had been accepted as a painter? Most importantly, viewing a technical version of a film I adore reminded me as a writer how to tell a story and that appearance no matter how brilliant cannot substitute heart.

Is it worth seeing? Only for those who are interested in filmmaking. It should be studied as a technical marvel. Hit play and put it on mute. To be fair, I don’t think the director or any of the cast wanted to produce a heartless version of a timeless success in the name of technology. I think it was a mixture of wanting to tell an amazing story in a new medium. Unfortunately, that medium, did not agree. Perhaps it could have worked if it were live-action. Maleficent (Stromberg, 2014) with Angelina Jolie was magnificent. Tim Burton’s Dumbo rests dearly in my heart. I may have to review that film next. I think it impressed me more than the original. For those who love the lions of Pride Rock, the CGI versions are shells of their former selves. Treat yourself to the untouchable 1994 classic.

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