I’ve been pretty generous to the recent live-action remakes as of late. I enjoyed Beauty and the Beast and thought Aladdin was overwhelming but cute. The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficent were fine. Pete’s Dragon was tragic. I thoroughly disliked Cinderella.
But I have not been against these remakes on principle because for each of these films I see arguments to be made for updating them, whether that be to widen the scope, deepen the themes, or adjust to modern sensibilities. Besides, all of these films were basically fairy tales, and fairy tales are designed to explore different cultural anxieties and adapt with age. They are supposed to be reinvented, so a good adaptation will reinvent them in some way. While none of the films wowed me, I thought there was still an artistic reasoning Disney could give for making them, outside the obvious one of money.
The Lion King though? I honestly cannot find a single thing in this remake that improves upon the original.
That’s the sentiment of many critics, but if there has been one redeeming factor for The Lion King, it is that people are wowed by the technology. And so was I, for about ten minutes. The character design is beautiful, the scenery is stunning, and the voice actors are very good (special shoutout to the constantly unappreciated Chiwetel Ejiofor, who here plays Scar but never tries to replicate Jeremy Irons, and elevates even the weakest of material with his Bond-villain approach).
But after the initial “whoa” wore off, I found the technology to be more like showing off than doing anything to service the story. What does making this live-action look do to service the story? No child is under the impression lions really act like this. The Lion King is a story about Simba, a fictional lion in a Hamlet-esque drama. It’s not a Nat Geo documentary. We’re supposed to relate to Simba, and the original movie did that through anthropomorphized animals and exaggerated facial expressions to communicate emotions. Real-life animals are simply not as expressive as humans, and so no matter how well the voice actors do, without the facial acting to back up the voices, the characters fall flat. There is nothing added to the story; it is almost a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake. Even with the “live action” and hyper-realistic approach, there are no elements of actual real-world lion pride dynamics added, because if so, Sarabi and Nala would be the main characters instead of Simba and Mufasa and Simba would die trying to convert to being vegetarian. The “realistic” treatment here calls for cutting out the fun of the original without substituting it for anything else. So what argument can there be made for “we need to make it live-action” outside of, “wouldn’t it be cool?” and I don’t think that is a compelling enough case.
A trend of the other live-action remakes has been to “fix” the problems of the original source material. These problems in many cases are not actual problems with the original films but instead are poor criticism that asks edgy questions such as, “does Belle have Stockholm syndrome? Cinderella isn’t a good role model for girls. In the real world dragons can’t sing!”
The desire from some audiences to have these live-action remakes over-explain every fantastic element from the original source seems to be a result of the rise of anti-intellectualism film criticism. This form of film criticism views films in an extremely literal lense and tends to ignore metaphorical readings. Plot holes become reasons a movie is objectively bad, rather than flawed, and these readings prioritize logic above all other aspects of the film. While I love watching things like Cinemasins for comedy, this is not good faith criticism because it does not seek to understand the vast potential of filmmaking nor does it show interest in discovering what the filmmaker may have been going for. For more on this subject, I recommend this video by Dan Olson, which looks at this phenomenon through my favorite movie of last year, Annihilation.
All of that to say, this Lion King remake doesn’t actually fix any potential issues of the source material (and I personally can’t think of any issues), unless you consider “lions don’t actually look like cartoons” as a problem. And this itself isn’t a problem because 1) Hand-drawn animation is not an inferior genre. 2) Films do not need to strive for realism. As critic Roger Ebert put it, “I’ve always felt that movies are an emotional medium.” This movie misses that wholely.
I think that history will remember this new live-action Lion King more like Avatar than the original 1994 Lion King. Avatar has just been passed by Avengers: Endgame as the highest-grossing film of all time, but consider that for ten years, it was the highest-grossing film of all time ($2.7897 billion) in part because of what a technological marvel it was and how it made use of the height of the 3D craze.
But Avatar’s cultural footprint is really only its reign as the highest-grossing film (well, until a few days ago) and as a joke. There is no strong fandom for Avatar, only probably 30% of the population can even remember the main character’s name or any substantial facts about the film. We’ll see if that changes with James Cameron’s 17 upcoming sequels, but Avatar was quickly outpaced and forgotten. And I believe it will be the same here. Technology doesn’t stick with people as much as stories do.
Look, Disney already has my money. And it will have a lot of other people’s money, too. And if you’re desperate, I won’t blame you for seeing something you know will be fine and is a safe choice for the whole family. That familiarity is why Disney is so successful. But trust me, rewatching the original Lion King will be a much better use of your time, and there are better movies in theaters right now to see. Or save your money for the upcoming Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Or Frozen 2. Or Jungle Cruise with the Rock. Or Mulan. Or Little Mermaid. Or- well, you get it. It’s Disney’s world and we’re just living in it.
You know who the only good, realistic but still emotive CGI animal is? Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia movies. Yes, those films were Not As Good As The Books®, but look at the range of expressions! Or even Richard Parker from Life of Pi! So it’s not that this approach couldn’t have worked, but the “cool technology and animal logic at all costs!” approach fails the story. Nothing but respect for my favorite furry Christ figure.
Next week: A very fast and furious review with a special guest