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It may be a long time before viewers can appreciate the 2019 remake of "The Lion King" as a freestanding work, instead of judging it against the original. The 1994 version was "Hamlet" plus "Bambi" on the African veldt: a childhood-shaping, Oscar-winning blockbuster, the second-highest grossing feature film of its calendar year, one of the last great hand-drawn Disney animated features (Pixar's original "Toy Story" came out 18 months later), and a tear-producing machine. This remake was controversial long before it opened, mainly because it seemed to take the Walt Disney company's new branding strategy—remaking beloved animated films as CGI-dependent "live action" spectaculars—to its most drastic conclusion. It serves up the same story with different actors, different arrangements of beloved songs and soundtrack cues, a couple of original tunes, a few fresh scenes and sequences, and, of course, photorealistic animals. The latter are the movie's main selling point, so believable that one of my kids remarked afterward that sitting through the film was like watching a nature documentary on mute while the soundtrack to original "The Lion King" played in the background.
But here's the thing: the movie is helmed by a Disney veteran, actor-director Jon Favreau, who's great at this kind of thing. And this might be his best-directed film, if you judge purely in terms of how the scenes and sequences have been framed, lit, and cut together. The cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel, who shot some of the greatest live-action animal adventures in movie history, including "The Black Stallion," and this production straightforwardly owns the notion of "realness," modeling its animals on actual creatures, defining character more through body type and ingenious details of movement than through facial expressions, which might've looked kinda creepy here, honestly. (The animals are a little bit creepy at times, though not as creepy as in Andy Serkis' "Mowgli," where you sometimes felt as if you were watching top secret footage of gene-spliced animal-humans.)
Favreau broke into filmmaking with such hip indie comedies as "Swingers" and "Made," then improbably transformed himself into a junior version of Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, overseeing the biggest of big-budget properties, including the first two "Iron Man" films and Disney's recent hyper-real remake of "The Jungle Book." This may be his most daunting challenge yet, or at least his most provocative if you cherish the source material. The very idea of presuming to remake Disney's most financially successful late-period animated film with the latest in computer-generated imagery, while continually reminding people of the original by recycling the same story and music (and many of the same iconic shots and locations, including the lions' distinctively shaped Pride Rock), is as close as Hollywood gets to courting charges of blasphemy.
Visually, the original was 88 minutes' worth of stylized paintings in motion, like a child's storybook come to life, but with expressionistic or psychedelic elements (like the freaky green highlights in the "Be Prepared" sequence, and the stylized hellfire and skewed camera angles during the end battle) that tickled the sensibilities of film-buff parents. In contrast, this new "Lion King" is rooted deeply in the real, from its plain, sometimes drab colors to the animals' intricately rendered bone structures, muscles, and fur. Even when the characters are singing the familiar songs and repeating the familiar lines (or, in one hilarious and oddly postmodern interlude, quoting another Disney movie) the entire crew is working double-overtime to convince you that these creatures exist, that they shed fur and drop scat on the jungle floor.
Favreau and Deschanel's camera (or "camera"—this is a digital movie built from ones and zeros) follows closely behind the animals as they gallop through grasslands, scale cliffs and hills, tumble and wrestle and fight, and romp through water and rain. It's as as if they were real animals with intelligence and agency who allowed camera crews to follow them rather than eating them. (Disney always released animal documentaries in addition to their animated and live-action features, and this one sometimes feels like a very basic one from the 1950s, where an editor would cut to an unremarkable close-up of a bear panting in the summer heat, and the narrator would tell you it was sad because it missed its mom.)
It's impossible to deny that this movie represents a technical milestone. We've seen digitized versions of real animals before (perhaps most strikingly in the recent "Planet of the Apes" movies, and in Favreau's "Jungle Book") but they're presented so matter-of-factly by Favreau that if they didn't talk and sing, and if you squinted just a bit, you'd never know they weren't the real deal. And the filmmaking itself adds credibility. The "camera" (again, there is no camera, just CGI) seems to have weight. When it "flies" over "Africa," you'd swear it had been attached to an actual helicopter. When the elder lion king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only actor from the original reprising his part), scales the walls of a canyon to rescue his son from rampaging wildebeests unleashed by his evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it's clear that the filmmakers have put a lot of thought into how a 400-pound alpha predator would do such a thing, whereas the original was content with "the lion climbs up the rock."
Of course there's something to be said for sticking to "the lion climbs up the rock" rather than proving you that know how to answer the question "How does a 400-pound lion climb up a rock?" The Dad Joke answer is, "Any way he wants to," but animators need more direction than that. It's easy to make a case that lions and hyenas and baboons and hornbills and antelopes drawn with ink and paint, with an eye towards the simple yet daring gesture rather than Nature Channel texture, register as more emotionally "real" than things that might be mistaken for photos, especially when they're doing vaudeville wordplay and delivering sad monologues and singing songs by Elton John and Tim Rice.
But that doesn't fly, not anymore, because the movie industry has conditioned audiences to think that "reality" and "believability" are the greatest of all creative virtues, and that the live-action blockbuster is the classiest, most respectful way to tell a story. That's why visually daring animated films like "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" only make a fraction of the box office haul of more literal-minded live-action Marvel movies. And it's why almost every spectacle-driven live action (or "live action") blockbuster, from Marvel and DC to the "Star Wars" franchise and the American Godzilla films, and the Transformers, and even Pixar, are obsessed with making sure that countertops and pavement and glass and hair and skin and fur and fire and water look photographically real, and that everything moves believably even you're watching wisecracking toys or combat droids or city-destroying kaiju. To quote a friend, if you follow this creative impulse too slavishly, it's like using a magic wand to make a toaster.
Where you fall on this stuff is anyone's guess, if you care about it at all. You might not, and that's OK. But it should be said that even if you're not obsessed with cinema minutia, this film is still a fascinating aesthetic experiment, less reminiscent of Favreau's previous photorealistic Disney animal picture, "The Jungle Book," than of Gus van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," a curiosity that wasn't quite shot-for-shot but got eerily close. Watching this new "Lion King" reminded me of seeing the "Psycho" remake in a theater and hearing people scream their heads off at the film's jump scares, even though they were near-exact reproductions of things Hitchcock had done 28 years earlier, with the same music, but in color instead of black and white, and with different actors.
Who deserves credit for inspiring that powerful emotional reaction in 1998? Alfred Hitchcock, for making "Psycho" in the first place? Or Gus van Sant, for realizing that the master's work was so fully realized that if he copied it as closely as possible, audiences would still scream in the same places 38 years later? If you retain as much of an original work as possible while reimagining it, is it a gesture of respect or timidity? Is the result a thought experiment, or just an easy way ("easy" in terms of imagination, not effort) to make lots of money by creating a slightly different version of a thing people already know they like? Maybe films like the new "Lion King" take the phrase "give the people what they want" absolutely literally, and that's the whole (cynical?) point of their existence. But is slavish fidelity to an old text really what "the people" want? Or is it possible—to paraphrase a different showbiz maxim that's equally true—"the people" don't actually know what they want until someone shows it to them?
There are parts of the new "Lion King" where that second maxim comes into play, and it's beguiling, sometimes glorious. Like many "live action" Disney remakes of animated movies, this one is much longer than the original, and yet (like Favreau's "Jungle Book," still the best entry in this photorealistic remake series) it uses the extra length to make a statement, creating a sense of stillness. This might sound odd in a review of a CGI-driven 2019 Disney movie, but Favreau often appears to be trying to create a mid-twentieth-century motion picture made with the shiniest new tech—the kind of movie that took its time and gave viewers a bit of mental breathing space, permitting them to contemplate what they were seeing as they saw it.
There are times when the movie clears out music and dialogue and just lets you hear natural sounds and watch lions, giraffes, elephants, birds, rodents, and insects move through the frame. This movie uses the motif of "light" more subtly than the original, because it's striving to look "real" rather than stylized, and the result is a great example of how CGI animation can achieve a different kind of poetic effect that's different from the kind that old-fashioned cel animators might attempt.
When Mufasa tells young Simba that his domain is "everything the light touches," the scene is illuminated by a golden, dawn-like glow, and when they have what proves to be their final conversation before Mufasa's death (that's not a spoiler, folks—"Hamlet" is 400 years old) the sunlight ebbs and gives way to darkness, and the sky fills with stars, foreshadowing Mufasa taking his place among the ghosts of kings and queens up above. A sequence two-thirds of the way through takes a brief transitional bit from the original—Rafiki the baboon realizing that Simba is still alive by catching his scent in the wind—and builds a lengthy, chain-reaction sequence around it, with a tuft of Simba's fur traveling, like the "Forrest Gump" feather, from the Eden-like jungle where he's exiled himself to the pridelands.
And while the photorealism of the animals snuffs out any possibility of subtle "human" facial expressions, the creatures' bodies provide more characterization detail than you might expect. Especially impressive is the way Scar's physique contrasts with Mufasa's. The former is angular and raw, a Mick Jagger or David Bowie sort of body that lopes and limps, while the latter is a magnificent bruiser like Dave Bautista or Dwayne Johnson, so thick and powerful that when he moves, you can imagine the air parting around him. When Scar licks his paw and grooms himself absentmindedly as his brother pontificates, the gesture comes across as decadent and contemptuous even though it looks like something a real lion would do. That's filmmaking magic of a different kind than was contained in the source, and it's not necessarily lesser.
What distinguishes all these choices is that they aren't blatantly trying to re-create or pay homage to something that viewers loved in an original work, in order to comfort us and press our nostalgia buttons. That means they can stand on their own two paws, making unflattering comparison harder. When the movie is doing its own thing, you don't think about whether Donald Glover's performance as the adult Simba is better or worse or merely different from Matthew Broderick's Simba (he's different—more internalized and shell-shocked), or whether Beyonce gives a better acting performance as Nala than Moira Kelly (she doesn't, except when she sings), or whether Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are a funnier meerkat-warthog duo than Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella (call it a tie, and ties go to actors with Broadway-caliber singing voices). The movie is never less interesting than when it's trying to be the original "Lion King," and never more compelling than when it's carving out negative space within a very familiar property and strutting to the beat of its own, new music.
The worst thing you can say about this movie, and perhaps the highest compliment you can pay it, is to say it would be even more dazzling if it told a different story with different animals and the same technology and style—and maybe without songs, because you don't necessarily need them when you have images that sing.
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