Movie Review: “The Lion King”

20 Jul

Out of all the Disney animated classics, none holds a greater place in my heart than “The Lion King.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched the original film—in particular the unforgettable “Circle of Life” opening sequence. (It was also pretty fun to grow up and realize “hey, that story was actually ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ all along!”) Given Disney’s mixed track record in recent years, maybe I should’ve been more skeptical of director Jon Favreau’s live-action—ahem, photorealistic computer-animation—update, but I was there opening night as soon as the remake dropped.

The verdict? Mostly positive—even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor.

At bottom, this is almost the same movie as the original, sometimes even feeling like a shot-for-shot remake. The themes and songs and iconic images—well, most of them—are all still there. If mainlining 90’s nostalgia is your thing (and come on, that’s the entire millennial generation’s raison d’etre), it’s hard to top this movie.

But even so, something’s missing.

It’s a little tough to pin down the biggest advantage of the hand-drawn 1994 film over the 2019 remake, but I’d describe it in terms of the distinction between scientific truth and narrative truth. Consider, for instance, the difference between the statements George Washington crossed the Delaware and a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens entered a carved wooden cylinder to travel across an expanse of running water. The former tells, or at least connotes, an account of events that becomes intelligible in the context of a greater narrative; the latter, decontextualized, describes detailed observations without reference to underlying reasons or causes. Both statements are true, but each statement expresses something the other does not. Awareness (or the lack thereof) of this distinction is what makes Nathan Pyle’s “Strange Planet” comics so entertaining, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s social media presence so insipid.

The 2019 photorealistic version of “The Lion King” is a triumph of “scientific” storytelling (well, as far as it goes). For better or worse, the onscreen animals and landscapes look real, like images from a high-caliber nature documentary. But in the process of translating the story from a cartoon to “live-action” format, some crucial—if subtle—aspects of the narrative have been lost. To understand what I mean by this, take two minutes and watch this scene from the 1994 version, when the triumphant Simba finally ascends Pride Rock. It’s probably one of the most powerful, evocative sequences ever put to film.

The 2019 version of this scene—rendered as a single wide-angle shot—plays out rather differently. No longer does Rafiki hug Simba and tell him “it is time.” No longer do we see the look of absolute joy and awe in the faces of Simba’s friends. No longer do we see Simba’s climb from multiple angles, including the mingled joy, sorrow, and longing on his face as Mufasa’s rumbling “remember” echoes from the sky. And perhaps most crucially, the remake omits the original’s half-second cutaway shot of a bleached antelope skull being washed away as a cleansing rain flows over the Pridelands.

The scene’s message is clear: Simba’s victory is something more than just a good guy triumphing over a bad guy. Rather, it’s a kind of cosmic healing of harms, a restoration of the proper order of things.By reducing the sequence to a single wide-angle shot, the 2019 movie’s “simpler” approach fails to capture the full emotional power of the original—and that’s not the only place where the 2019 film seems to miss crucial aspects of the first film’s mythic majesty.

For instance, in the remake we’re told at one point that the reason for the Pridelands’ desolation under Scar is the hyenas’ overhunting of the herds—whereas the original, which lacks such an explanation, instead implies that the desolation is a kind of existential sickness bound up with the triumph of evil and the displacement of the “natural law” (that is, the circle of life). In this reading, Simba is not merely the rightful ruler of the Pridelands, but something of a messianic figure (an interpretation strongly suggested in Rafiki’s shamanistic imagery). The 2019 update resists that reading.

Additionally, perhaps the most unforgettable visual from the 1994 film was the image of Rafiki, straining forward towards the edge of Pride Rock, lifting the infant Simba high as a visible beam of sunlight descends from the clouds and strikes the baby lion’s face. The 2019 remake trades this for a shot of Rafiki sitting on the edge of Pride Rock holding up Simba as the clouds part overhead, lighting up Simba’s face. I’m sure the remake’s version is more scientifically accurate (mandrills don’t stand up like that!) but it’s certainly not as majestic an image as the original.

Now, to be sure, there are some things the remake does better than its predecessor—enough to satisfactorily offset the update’s emphasis on scientific over narrative truth. This time around, for one thing, Scar’s hyena accomplices are much scarier, coming off as real threats rather than comic relief. (I’d be remiss in my critical responsibilities, though, if I didn’t flag at least one eyebrow-raising revision here: in this version, the hyenas are attempting to migrate from their “own land” which they’ve devastated, whereas the original suggested that the hyenas were vagabonds voluntarily living on the margins. Rather like The Angry Birds Movie, it’s not especially difficult to read the film as expressing some politically incorrect ideas about what foreigners do to an existing culture. Take that for what it’s worth.) Additionally, the transition from animation to photorealistic CGI gives the larger animal characters (like Mufasa) some genuine heft and power. The stampede scene has some real, concussive force to it, and the climactic fight between Scar and Simba feels earth-shattering in its intensity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the update treats the mantra Hakuna Matata—“no worries, for the rest of your days”—as a kind of nihilistic Epicureanism rather than a goofy rallying cry for stoners. As the meerkat Timon is happy to inform the adult Simba, Hakuna Matata entails a wholesale rejection of the whole principle of the “circle of life.” For Timon and warthog buddy Pumbaa, life is a straight line: birth to death, lacking a unifying principle of interconnectedness (Simba, by contrast, never forgoes his quasi-religious beliefs in the circle of life and in the providential presence of the “great kings of old” looking down from the stars). Now, Timon and Pumbaa eventually repudiate their view—but the very framing of the issue as a clash of metaphysics, rather than just an abdication of responsibility, adds an interesting level of sophistication to the film.

At bottom, if you (like me) grew up watching “The Lion King” on repeat, you owe it to yourself to see the remake.  I may quibble about issues of narrative truth and scientific truth, but the fact that the 1994 film is basically perfect doesn’t make this update automatically a bad one. The visual effects are breathtaking, the music is still great, and the story is still powerful. And it’s much better than, say, 2019’s “Aladdin,” because it doesn’t gut the themes that made the original so memorable.

The photorealistic version may not be the first iteration of the “Lion King” story I show my children. But it’s a good time at the movies nonetheless.

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Posted by on July 20, 2019 in Fantasy


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