Disney’s new live-action Lion King prompts one mane question: Why?
|National Post 17 Jul 2019 at 09:47|
It may be the king of the jungle and the apex predator of Disney’s 1990s animation renaissance, but The Lion King can’t catch a break. If the tech boffins behind this new “live-action” (actually computer-generated) remake stray too far from the 1994 original, they’ll be accused of tarnishing greatness, or even trashing it. Stick too close, and they risk having people ask: Why even remake it in the first place?
The Lion King 2.0 opens shot-for-shot and note-for-note with the original, as the sun rises over the African veldt, and a menagerie of animals heads to Pride Rock to welcome Simba the baby lion to the world, all to a stirring song by Elton John and Tim Rice. It’s “Circle of Life,” and it moves us all, and damned if I wasn’t moved all over again.
The Lion King. Disney
But the quarter-century separating this King from its predecessor has only cemented the reputation of the original as a bona fide classic. Granted, its then-cutting-edge hand-drawn animation may seem a little dated today, but that’s no reason for a do-over, any more than you’d want to colourize Casablanca, or auto-tune Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! It’s an artifact of its time. Let it be.
That said, if you see The Lion King with no knowledge of the original, you’ll be blown away by its powerful story, as Simba (JD McCrary, replaced in adolescence by Donald Glover) is tricked into believing he is responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa. The elder lion is voiced by James Earl Jones, the only returning cast member from the original, and sounding oddly more Darth Vader-y this time out. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays his duplicitous brother Scar, and Alfre Woodard provides the voice of Queen Sarabi.
But this is really Simba’s story, his journey to adulthood guided by a rogue meerkat named Timon – comedian Billy Eichner, channeling a bit of Paul Lynde – and his warthog buddy Pumbaa, voiced by Seth Rogen; so a Canadian warthog. Like all the animals in the movie, they are photo-realistic to the max, which presents several problems, not least that most animal mouths, snouts, beaks and mandibles don’t readily form into the shapes ours make when we say “Hakuna Matata.”
Young Simba. Disney
It’s clear that director Jon Favreau understands this, and why shouldn’t he? He also made 2016’s The Jungle Book, with a human Mowgli dropped into a horde of CG animals. The solution seems to be to avoid closeups of the animals wherever possible, and to shoot them from the side or even the back during their more multi-syllabic utterances.
It mostly works – there were a mere handful of moments where the technique stuttered or threatened my suspension of disbelief – but again, why bother? The Lion King has to fight against the way animals move (or don’t move), whereas the hand-drawn original could take liberties as only that technique can.
Couple this with the fact that Disney has for years been churning out nature documentaries – including 2011’s African Cats – and add in that this is just one of four remakes from the studio this year – Dumbo debuted in March, Aladdin in May, and Maleficent 2, the sequel to its Sleeping Beauty reboot, arrives in October – and The Lion King starts to look like studio synergy run amok.
What’s more, this remake somehow pads out the original’s 88 minutes by a full half-hour without adding anything new. There’s the same music, the same dramatic beats, and the same gentle comedy from Timon and Pumbaa. Although I cringed to hear one of them say, “You do you, Simba!”
That’s not going to sound fresh in another 25 years. It might not even age well by next Wednesday. But by then, Disney will have chalked up another hit – pundits are suggesting an opening weekend of at least $150 million – and will be singing “Hakuna Matata” all the way to the bank. For myself, I’d suggest you pop in the 1994 Lion King on VHS – or Blu-ray if you must – and feel the love tonight.
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