‘The Lion King’ 2019: Dead-eyed Delusion

I wondered if I should make this another screed about the growing Disney monopoly. Guy Lodge of The Guardian already made the case from every conceivable angle, and desire to unearth The Lion King’s fascist overtones was already quelled by The Washington Post. Yes, it’s a story based on old traditions and outdated views of African cultures. Yes, its tellers are slowly but surely swallowing up their competition. No, the 1994 original doesn’t rip-off Kimba the White Lion, which has a markedly different story (though when it comes to critiquing the wholesale lifting of Tezuka’s imagery, be our guest). Part of me wonders if this new Lion King ought to be approached like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, an experiment in shot-for-shot retelling that gets to the heart of why original, groundbreaking works might stand the test of time — though Disney’s 2019 remake is hardly altruistic. 

What this film is, though, is an exercise in nostalgia. Not the wistful tinge of memory — rather corporate nostalgia, as a tool of commerce, wherein bare-minimum familiarity is a benchmark for trade. As someone who enjoys Disney and Universal theme parks, the concept of manufactured nostalgia isn’t lost on me (sign me the fuck up for the obnoxiously expensive Galaxy’s Edge), but where the new Lion King departs from its ilk is how nakedly it puts Disney’s soulless corporatism is on display. Watching it is no more or less ethical than watching Avengers: Endgame, though it feels far more ugly.

The Lion King (2019) is a film that flattens expression. Its pursuit of “photorealism” has rendered its characters zombies, unable to emote even as much as real animals. Twelve-year-old JD McCray performs admirably as young Simba, his otherwise sprightly voice breaking and quivering as he discovers Mufasa’s body — the most hard-hitting scene in the original. Though here, in the “live-action” re-creation, the lion prince’s discovery is met with a deadpan expression, and a prodding akin to curiosity rather than desperation.

With the mildest of exception, the characters in this Lion King are restricted to singular, status-quo facial expressions, which change only when they blink. Of the voice cast, only Donald Glover (the older Simba) seems to fit this strange aesthetic — albeit through his detached-millennial demeanor,  as if to marry his performance to the character entirely by accident. Other actors, like Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, sound bored by the prospect of Shakespearean melodrama and simply go through the motions . Though regardless of who tries what new or fun thing with their role (Billy Eichner, for instance, is expectedly energetic as Timon), the film reduces every character to taxidermy with a ventriloquist-dummy jaw. Watch the film on mute and you’re unlikely to pick up on an ounce of emotion. 

While the folks at Disney seem to have (almost) solved CG’s gravity problem — the animals feel like they have weight, except when they fall — the film’s “photo realism” comes at too great a cost. There’s no meaningful difference between a gazelle singing and chewing cud. Stampedes look and feel the same as the barely-choreographed chorus lines, and the fighting and frolicking are as visually indistinguishable as the lions themselves.

In the ’94 film, the easy-going, floppy-haired Simba gazes into the water, and sees his reflection transform into the dignified Mufasa, whose stiff upper-lip now seems, to the young lion, like guidance and resolve. In the 2019 remake, an expressionless, lion-looking lion stares into the water, as his reflection fades into that of another lion who looks nearly the same. If you recall having watched the animated original, you might draw on your childhood memories to project meaning onto this scene, though it relies entirely on this marketable intertext. There’s no visual distinction between Simba and his father — the opening and closing coronations are practically identical — though there might have been an auditory distinction if a returning James Earl Jones weren’t eighty-eight and tired (Note: the new film sorely lacks the delectable villainy of Jeremy Irons as Scar; be prepared for slam poetry in lieu of Triumph der Löwen). 

To add to this artistic vacuum, the film’s flattened expression is matched, almost perfectly, by its lighting design. Most day scenes seems to take place around noon, with light, shadow (or lack thereof) and colour rarely doing the work of informing mood or character. Director Jon Favreau does, on occasion, whip out the spatial magic he created on The Jungle Book — when Simba and Nala evade the hyenas through tunnels, it feels genuinely claustrophobic — though the chase scene, with its closing-in walls, is the only trick in his bag. It re-appears when the hyena chase Simba post-stampede and, oddly enough, when Simba follows Rafiki. 

Besides these three instances, things remain mostly static and at eye-level. Movement feels stifled when the “camera” tracks, as posture rarely tells the story; it made me yearn for the frenzy of Tom Hooper's Cats. When young Simba cowers during the stampede, he pushes himself up against a rock to avoid the trampling hooves, but it’s the only time in the film when a character’s body reflects their emotional state.

The film’s climactic fight offers the opportunity for spectacle beyond accurately-rendered fur. When Pride Rock is set ablaze, the nightmarish orange reflects off the rising smoke and brings the backdrop to life, for what feels like the first time. Though, given the assumed mandates about capturing “realism” (in a film about giant talking cats and their bird friends), the result isn’t light and shadow painting characters at their pivotal moments, but rather, silhouettes of ill-defined, indistinguishable lions and lionesses. Good luck telling Nala from Sarabi 100% of the time, or Simba from Scar in that final fight. But hey, at least the giraffe-poop looks accurate. 

There have been, and will be, Disney remakes a-plenty. Even ones like Guy Ritchie's Aladdin (2019) that feel like bad cosplay versions of stories best left to colonial history — though the new Aladdin at least featured genuine emotions and visceral, pulsating energy. The Lion King is unique, in that it feels like the visual expression of going through the motions and reciting familiar lines with dispassion, as if the computers used to render all that fur and greenery were used to make the artistic decisions too. It’s hollow, to the point that anticipating its fate feels more fact than prediction. It will make money. Lots of money! But in twenty-five years, few will hold it dear the way we do the original.  

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