The Lion King (2019)

“The way I see it, you and I are exactly the same.”

Before I dig in and harshly critique Disney’s latest remake, it should be noted and known that The Lion King ranks among the most mesmerizing visual film experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a magic trick of sorts, convincing moviegoers that the cheap con is as rich as the images are pristine, and the Mouse House’s sleight of hand and the misdirection only works if you go into the movie ready and willing to fully surrender to the strong power of nostalgia. I say that because, beneath all of the impressive photo-real graphics and the ingratiating call backs to the 1994 feature dwells a film that’s emotionally mute and dead behind the eyes. 2019’s The Lion King feels as alive as taxidermy.

For my money (not that it matters much to this eventual and inevitable billion dollar box office behemoth), The Lion King only briefly works during the opening act. The curious cub Simba (JD McCrary) is the preordained heir to his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) thrown overlooking all that the light touches, and he spends time playing with Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), his eventual Queen. It’s fun watching them fumble around, test boundaries and limits, and to gag at the thought of a destined marriage. Only here do the characters ever truly emote anything physically, and it’s helped by two young actors who offer up reliable vocal performances. The warmth and welcome pulse present in the beginning of the film flat lines with the bat of an evil, empty eye.

There’s an interesting and more than capable dynamic at work early on during Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, which ultimately plays more towards the darker dramatizations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet than the original film while offering only a speckle of the same level of colorful personality. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers memorable work as the much maligned and wounded Scar, John Oliver voices the hornbill bird Zazu with the manic that’s become his trademark, and John Kani embodies Rafiki with a soothing and sage sensibility. But the real scene-stealers are Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), so much so that I wish Disney might have been courageous enough to envision a spin-off entirely focused on their characters instead of doing what’s already been done shot for shot. This retelling is how I’d imagine a Bob Ross landscape painted by a robot might turn out. It’s lost the storytelling, the verve, the dialogue, and the unmistakable stroke of humanity. This might be the first film I’ve come across that didn’t feel like it was made by people, and that’s not a good thing.

The worst and most inexcusable grievances come from the lackluster work boorishly added by Donald Glover & Beyoncé as the grown versions of Simba & Nala. Both are forgettable in every sense of the meaning, practically to the point that they sound as if no prep time went into honing their respectful characters. Glover and Beyoncé are the voices behind Simba and Nala, but they never embody their separate spirits, a task that seems to be only more insurmountable due to the film’s unrealistic to approach to conjured realism. The animal kingdom might fawn over The Lion King, and yet I can’t imagine an objective person seeing it as anything more than incredibly adept with its technology and morally bankrupt in its justification for even existing in the first place. It’s more uncanny valley than it is Serengeti.

I admittedly over-rated 2016’s The Jungle Book; I now see it as an above average movie, full of average performances, and one directed with great flair for kinetic movement. The Lion King shares the director tied to that last sentiment. Jon Favreau reminds me a lot of Ron Howard, for better and for worse, in that they are both extremely talented, nimble filmmakers who always show style even when the dull scripts they’re working off of show few traces of grace. And that only exacerbates all of the problems bubbling beneath the surface of The Lion King. Countless people will bend over backwards to love this film because it’s tied and tethered to a moment in their memory bank. And even when that moment has been long gone, like a lost soul in Pet Sematary, audiences will happily bring the dead back to life in hopes of another second with the past instead of reckoning with something new or foreign. The Lion King has been given a botox facelift to the point of self-induced aphasia, has been stretched to a longer than necessary length, and has had its emotional cores nipped and tucked. I commend the time and the effort put into this seance, even if it is an experiment gone horrifically wrong. I’ve seen YouTube clips with voice-overs that were more convincing.

“To change your future, you gotta put your past behind you.”

Rating: 2 out of 5

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