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Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Lion King

The Lion King is the third Disney remake to hit theaters in about four months, after March's Dumbo and Aladdin from May.  Here, we get the story that we are all familiar with, only performed by expressionless CG puppets, rather than traditional Disney animation.  The end result is one of the strangest disconnects between form and function that I have ever seen on the big screen.

This is as soulless of a big budget production that I can imagine.  The entire cast is made up out of photo realistic computer animated animals that have been faithfully imagined to their real life counterparts, but are never once capable of showing emotion for some reason.  Of course, it would be strange to see realistic-looking animals laughing, crying, or showing human-like expressions.  That would not work here the same way it does in a hand-drawn animated feature.  But to give them constantly blank, expressionless faces is just as off-putting, if not more so.  When we see the young lion cub Simba (voice by JD McCrary) frolicking about and singing about how he just can't wait to be king, yet his face shows no sign of joy or excitement, I had to wonder.  If The Lion King is one thing, it is a story about emotion, exile and redemption.  To see it being told by a physical cast that is unable to express these, or actually any, feeling is more creepy than engaging.

This is special effects technical wizardry run amok.  The artists have obviously gone through great pains to make this movie look great, by giving us an all-animal cast and an African setting that looks real enough to touch.  But at the same time, nothing connects, because director Jon Favreau (2016's The Jungle Book remake) has decided to go far to the "Uncanny Valley" edge of realism.  All the lions, meerkats, warthogs, puffins, hyenas and baboons that populate the story have faces that refuse to show any emotion, and tiny eyes that can barely be seen at times.  It may not sound like much, but when you actually see these soulless computer generated puppets recreating classic moments from the 1994 film, it can't be avoided that something is off.  The classic "Circle of Life" opening has been recreated almost shot-for-shot from the original, but because none of the creatures up on the screen are able to express anything, it comes across as empty.  Case in point: In the original opening sequence, when the tiny bird Zazu flies up to greet the King Mufasa, they acknowledge each other with warm smiles.  Here, the animals seem to just stare blankly at each other.

Why is this considered an improvement?  What is the point of going for a more realistic approach if we can't have the emotion that is supposed to go with the scene?  If we must sacrifice characters who can actually express feeling to one another, then why do it at all?  I have seen a lot of computer generated characters in my time of going to the movies, and I have seen some that have been able to move me, or create the illusion of feeling and depth.  These characters left me feeling completely cold from beginning to end.  And because the completely artificial cast feels cold, so does the film itself.  And so, we get one large disconnect, where we see these expressionless animals, but out of their mouths is coming the talented voice cast, who are clearly taking this material seriously and with respect.  When we see Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, just as before) showing his son their kingdom for the first time, it's supposed to be an epic and awe-inspiring moment.  We hear Jones selling the dialogue just as well as he did back in the original, but the animated figure that is reciting his words does not match up, because it doesn't seem to be feeling the words.

Of the cast, Jones is the only member of the earlier movie to reprise their role.  This time around, we have Donald Glover as the voice of the adult Simba, Beyonce Knowles-Carter as his best friend and eventual love interest, the lioness Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the voice of the scheming Uncle Scar, comedian John Oliver as Zazu, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen providing comic relief as the duo of Timon and Pumbaa.  There's nothing really to complain about when it comes to the cast.  They are selling the material, singing the classic Elton John and Tim Rice songs, and generally live up to expectations, while occasionally offering their own spin on the characters.  I personally enjoyed Ejiofor's villain performance more than Jeremy Irons' take on the character some 25 years ago.  Nobody offends or hits a wrong note here.  They simply are being betrayed by the fact that the high-tech animation cannot live up to the performances that they are giving.

And so I am left to wonder, who is this take on The Lion King for?  I know there is an audience out there for this, but are they really thrilled by the lack of emotion that this new film provides in spades over the traditionally animated film?  I suppose there is, because my screening was attended by a packed and enthusiastic audience.  Is the problem with me, then?  I felt such a strange disconnect with the film that I never once warmed up to it, despite my valiant efforts to do so.  I felt like I was being told a story I knew and loved, performed by a voice cast who was respecting the material, but being interpreted by a physical cast of puppets that just couldn't express the right emotion.  Everything felt off, and just kind of wrong.  It's like looking at a painting that looks beautiful at a distance, but as you walk closer and examine the finer details, you start to see the numerous and glaring mistakes that the artist made. 

Of course, nothing I say will prevent this movie from making a fortune over the summer, and probably shattering box office records this weekend.  Maybe I'm just a cranky old critic who just doesn't get what the public wants.  All I know is how I feel about it, and I felt shortchanged by the entire experience.  Perhaps you will feel differently.  If so, go and enjoy.  I'll pass.

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