It took some time, but the mad geniuses at Disney have finally done it. They’ve made a movie that utterly fails to justify its own existence: a hollow, openly cynical venture among a cycle of hollow, cynical ventures that started sometime around 2010’s “Alice In Wonderland.” Yes, the new “Lion King” is here, and the good news is that it won’t ruin your childhood. It will, however, remind you that you could just be watching a much better (and much shorter) 90s version.
Like this year’s “Aladdin” and last year’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” is a purportedly live action remake of one of Disney’s celebrated animated films. I say purportedly because unlike those other two, there is not a single real character on screen. Leave it to Disney to innovate the feeling of watching video game cutscenes, complete with quick time events. In case you didn’t grow up wearing out a VHS copy of the 1994 original, a summary: Simba, a lion cub and heir to the throne, witnesses his father’s death at the hands of his uncle Scar, and flees into exile under the wing of Timone the Meerkat and Pumba the wildebeest. A few songs and some soul searching later, he finds himself, and the rest is history. For those of you who thought, “gee, Scar’s animosity is kind of sudden; I wish they would’ve explained the exact family circumstances that lead to his villainy!”, you’re in luck! The new Lion King spends several minutes of plot trying to fix holes that no one really cares about for seemingly no reason other than to make it feel like there’s something new. There are also some more jokes in the iconic number “Hakuna Matata” that dilute the charm of the song, plus a new song by Beyonce that is actually quite good.
To be fair, the lions look good. There’s clearly a lot of money spent on them, and they are quite stunningly realized. But, to quote Roger Ebert: “They spent all this money making them look real only to destroy the illusion the second they open their mouths.”
The fundamental problem is that animals don’t emote like humans, and these movies are slaves to realism, attempting to work in a medium where realism isn’t necessary. So as a result, every single character carries the same blank expression on their face, occasionally managing to give some glimmer of a feeling with body language. As much as the voice actors try, it’s really hard to believe Simba is sad when we don’t see any tears rolling down his face. Computer generated animals aren’t even a novelty anymore. There’s simply no wonder in this film at all, nothing that takes your breath away. I have sincerely felt more emotion playing Tetris Effect than I did watching this entire movie.
Speaking of actors, there’s a star studded cast but nothing much for anyone to do. Beyonce exudes grace as Nala, while Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor struggle to give their characters personality. Seth Rogan and Billy Eichner manage some amusing rapport that all too often becomes grating (not to mention some eye-rolling meta flourishes).
And therein lies the problem. This year’s “Lion King” has no reason to exist. The original is still very good, and it’s still available to purchase for younger viewers. Even if one were to remake, Disney’s recent obsession with reality saps the entire thing of charm, inventiveness and visual spirit. By its very nature, animation is much more expressive and willing to break free of “reality,” especially in musicals where reality breaks are much more common. That’s how you get sequences like the end of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” when all the animals form into one swirling mass holding each other up. Here, they just move along while the camera does its best to hide the fact that the mouths aren’t moving. All the life and color has been sapped out of the movie and as a result, there’s no emotional connection. It’s hard to get invested watching real lions do stuff for two hours, especially when it feels like it’s going through the motions. It’s a crass, empty product of Disney’s aggressive capitalist culture, and it should raise eyebrows that the original screenwriters won’t be getting a penny for this. In the end, none of this will probably make a difference. Whether through nostalgia or monopolistic booking practices, this movie will probably break even.
Is it the worst movie of the year? God no; I’ll be nice and say that by the end, it manages to get some interesting shots in. It is, however, the one that makes me the most irate, a symbol of everything wrong with Disney’s (and Hollywood’s) current trajectory, of the glut of overpriced blockbusters, of constant remakes, of the west’s constant stigmatizing of animation. It’s a vacant, pandering bit of nostalgia made by a billion dollar corporation that hoards the billion dollars this movie makes. Perhaps nowhere is this more present than Timone starting to sing “Be Our Guest.”