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CINEMASCOPE: THE SUBDUED ROAR

July 21, 2019

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I like Jon Favreau’s work. As a filmmaker, he’s made some decent films, including the classic first Iron Man (2008) as well as entertaining pieces of cinema such as Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011). He’s also made some remakes of animated classics for Disney, including The Jungle Book (2016) and now The Lion King.

If you loved the original Jungle Book animation, then you may have been a little disappointed by his remake. While the film wasn’t bad, some of the new scenes didn’t work. Many of the complaints were that they didn’t match the heart and soul of the original. And it seems like these criticisms from fans were taken to heart by Jon Favreau and Disney, because The Lion King is essentially a shot-by-shot, by-the-numbers remake of the original.

It’s clear that Jon Favreau sat down with Walt Disney Pictures and Fairview Entertainment, and they all decided to study every frame of the classic so that they could update it. Curiously, some of the better scenes didn’t make the cut. Also, why does the song Can you feel the love tonight? now take place in daylight?

Admittedly, the animation is gorgeous. It’s so photorealistic and detailed that you could mistake it for a live-action film. Often, many of the scenes feel like they were ripped straight out of a National Geographic special. However, the realistic style doesn’t match the narrative.

Director Jon Favreau’s live-animation remake of The Lion King doesn’t roar, but only growls amusingly

The biggest problem is that the animals look like animals with moving mouths. When they communicate, their lips move, but that’s about it. Their lack of expressions takes the impact out of this Hamlet-like tale. It almost feels like someone took the powertrain of an old car and somehow shoved it inside the body of a model that’s 20 years newer. Initially, you’re wowed by the aesthetics, but after a short period, you realise something doesn’t quite feel right.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen the original treasured classic so many times, but I couldn’t shake the bizarreness of what I was watching. The Jungle Book wasn’t perfect, but at least it took a few more risks. The Lion King just seems happy to cash in on the nostalgia. If they were going to go the photorealistic route, then perhaps the rest of the film should have been a silent and brutal story.

The saving grace of The Lion King is its voice acting. The talented musician and actor Donald Glover is very good as Simba, a lion whose father was betrayed by his own brother and must now reclaim the throne. Superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is equally good as his best friend and love interest Nala. This is the first time I’ve heard her act, and her performance is skillful with good emotional range.

Seth Rogen is quite funny as the comic relief warthog, Pumbaa, with his signature Rogan laugh. But the best part is talented British comedian John Oliver as the red-billed hornbill Zazu, who replaces the iconic Rowan Atkinson with an excellent update on the character.

These voice actors bring energy and creativity to the film, despite having little new dialogue to work with. Unfortunately, their work often feels at odds with the subdued nature of the facial animations. Ultimately, these shortcomings leave The Lion King with many amusing growls, but not the roar we were hoping for.

Rated PG

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 21st, 2019