So, we got a new version of The Lion King. Sure, Disney billed it as “live action,” but it isn’t. But that isn’t something worth debating. What’s more important is to ask why. It’s probably obvious why. The Lion King may be the most commercially successful of the “Disney Renaissance” movies. It spawned multiple direct-to-DVD sequels, a TV series for the comic relief side characters, and a hugely successful stage musical. The songs entered the pop culture consciousness. Basically, the movie is huge.
So, yeah, it’s obvious why Disney would remake it. But that doesn’t say anything about the quality. How was it?
OK, to put it bluntly, this movie was a bad idea.
First off, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume the three or four people who actually end up reading this review already know the plot to The Lion King. Director Jon Favreau didn’t make too many changes to that. Heck, James Earl Jones is still the voice of Mufasa. The most he did was change the hyenas, making them more original characters instead of just reusing the original ones. But the iconic shots and songs are still there.
And that’s something of a problem. Favreau made the best live action remake I’ve seen so far in The Jungle Book. Except, the way that movie went, while it used the characters and the best known of the songs, it wasn’t a shot for shot remake. It was a whole new story. That works. It may work out at least in part because the original version of The Jungle Book doesn’t have as memorable a plot as many other Disney classics. That all goes back to my personal theory that it is always best to remake a less beloved movie than a popular classic.
In fact, that more popular original shows why more than anything this Lion King was a bad idea. The special effects/animation of this movie is great. The animals all look almost as real as if they used trained animals instead. It’s probably about 98% accurate, and unless you really stare at them, you probably won’t know better. But using live animals or reasonable facsimiles brings about a different problem: most animals can’t act.
Speaking as a cat owner, I know full well cats (which would include lions and hyenas) do not have the most emotional of faces. I figure that’s why dogs are more likely to be seen in a movie. They’re easier to train and are far more emotionally expressive animals.
There are numerous emotional scenes in this movie. And the human voice actors all do a fine job. But none of the emotions in those vocal performances carry through to the faces of their characters. Simba is crying over his father’s death? He sure doesn’t look it. He sounds it, true, but he doesn’t look it. We see the mouths move, and that’s about it. And sure, the animals may move like real animals, but they can’t dance or emote like their cartoon counterparts. Scar just looks like an emaciated old lion who might have a touch of the plague.
And then there’s the color issue. Using natural colors found in nature means the lions and other animals are mostly gray and brown. There’s some color in some of the plant life, but not for most of the animals. Not only does it make for a duller looking movie, but it actually makes it harder to tell some characters apart. That’s especially a problem for the big battle scene at the end of the movie at night during a rainstorm.
In a vacuum, this would probably be a fine movie. The animal animation is great, the voice work is fine, and the story still works. Heck, Scar’s vocal performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor might actually be an improvement. It’s just the central idea of a “live action” version with realistic animals behaving in a realistic manner just doesn’t work when the original was made up of talking cartoon critters. 6 out of 10 cute baby warthogs.