REVIEW: The Lion King

THE STORY

Live-action remake of the classic Disney story where a young lion prince flees his kingdom after a tragic event, only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

THE REVIEW

WARNING: Spoilers for a 25 year old movie. If one can even consider details about a 25 year old movie spoilers, and if you do, really…how is 1994 doing?

Ideally, each and every film should be seen and measured on their own merit, but how can that be done with these Disney remakes when the originals hold such a dear place in our collective memories?

Entire scenes and songs are etched in our heads, with even the smallest movements, tics and dialogues made by our favorite characters memorized after wearing out our VHS tapes (and sometimes, parents) from so much use.

And of all the films from the “Disney Renaissance” era, The Lion King represents the studio’s creative peak in storytelling, music and animation for many people.

So it’s fair to say that director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man, The Jungle Book) live-action adaptation had monumental expectations behind it.

The final result proves to be a mixed bag and a curious case in film making as it’s greatest strengths also represent its greatest weaknesses.

The Lion King’s interesting characters, epic scope and emotional storytelling have always been its shining elements having taken inspiration from various Bible stories and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

With themes of life, death, coming of age, responsibility, power, betrayal and love – both familial and romantic – the strong foundation from the 1994 hit is respected with very minimum changes made. The filmmakers smartly decided to not try and fix what was not broken.

The film ultimately plays like a “Greatest Hits” album, ticking off a playlist of the original’s most famous scenes. Even with 30 more minutes, fans of the animated classic won’t find any surprises in this rendition as every frame is meant to emotionally and visually connect you to the first version.

Also thankfully left alone – for the most part – is the iconic Academy Award winning soundtrack from Hans Zimmer and Elton John. Although some songs are tweaked for slightly more uninteresting “spoken”or slowed down versions (mainly due to the actors limited singing talent one can guess), Zimmer’s score benefits the most with the composer having the opportunity to re-record everything with a complete orchestra and bigger budget (much bigger), giving the music a fuller and richer texture.

But of course the big selling point for this version are the visual effects. The words breathtaking, mesmerizing and astounding come to mind and even then could be an injustice and understatement for the technical achievement that is presented on screen.

Every blade of grass, drop of water, spec of dirt, falling rock and various species of animals are digitally brought to life with such insane photo-realistic detail that I found myself getting choked up more often because of the beauty on display than the story being told.

Which brings us to what I previously mentioned: What is easily the film’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. In the pursuit of absolute realism – after all, Favreau has declared that his intention was to marry the aesthetic of a National Geographic documentary with a classic Disney story – something crucial was lost: Emotion.

Because we are supposed to be seeing real life animals, facial expressions and movements are kept to a minimum due to being limited by real life physics. This means that we can only discern what the characters are feeling through the dialogue and, occasionally, their body language.

This is most notable on two fronts: Mufasa’s death and the dance/singing numbers. The death of Mufasa just doesn’t have the same impact as we are seeing no visible facial reaction from Simba. Instead all the heavy emotional weight is put on the shoulders of the music, JD McCrary’s vocal performance (Young Simba) and our own nostalgia of the original scene.

What the movie gains in technological sophistication is lost on emotional storytelling.

Having said this, the process to bring the characters and environments to life as digital creations is fascinating. Without getting into too much detail, this was achieved by “shooting” the film in a Virtual Reality setting, where the director and crew would wear VR helmets, deciding camera movements, framing and lighting to be used within the VR environment. Anyone who has an interest on visual effects, I highly recommend digging deeper into the process that was used to create the digital effects.

Although the intent is admirable, the result can be disconcerting at times. I can only imagine that to counteract this, Favreau made sure to put together an excellent cast. One which is comprised of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver and original Mufasa James Earl Jones, among others. All deliver fantastic performances that are sadly let down by the expressionless faces of the animals.

And yet… nothing anyone says about this movie really matters.

All the children (as well as the occasional grown up) present in the screening I went to… loved it. They laughed, cried, gasped, sang and cheered throughout all 118 minutes. We have to remember that he importance that this version will have for some of the youngest audience members, as this is their first exposure to The Lion King.

These tales are no longer ours. We’ll always have the original but just as Simba was handed over the reign of Pride Rock, so must we pass these movies to our future generations.

It’s now their turn to wear out their own VHS tapes (and parents).

THE CONCLUSION

The new version of The Lion King is a fascinating creature. It easily boasts some of the most impressive visual effects of the last decade – if not in the history of film – but is also hindered by its own commitment to realism and a dependence on the source material. However, fans of the original should enjoy reliving all their favorite scenes and songs with an updated and oustanding new look.

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