Think Movies review: The Lion King 2019

Think Movies review: The Lion King 2019

by Alan Grant
article from Saturday 27, July, 2019

NOW THAT I’M BACK from having taken a little time off over summer, regular readers (speaking of which; hi dad… yes, I’ll pay you back that twenty quid!) will remember that this weekly foray into what’s on at your local multiplex has had a little bit of a theme of late. Together, we’ve checked out the 2019 remakes of both Aladdin and Dumbo and now that arguably the most anticipated of the run of live-action/CGI remakes of Disney classics is out in theatres it would be remiss to not offer a review of The Lion King.

After all, the 1994 furry version of Hamlet came at the height of the so-called “Disney renaissance” during which the House of Mouse seemed incapable of releasing anything other than stone-cold classics and in many respects represents what many fans and critics believe to be the pinnacle of Walt’s friendly massive corporate behemoth’s achievements before their stablemates, the impish little scamps at Pixar, started nicking their lunch money and pulling their underwear over their heads.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with the number of brain hemispheres required to read this that The Lion King 2019 is already a huge success at the box office, grossing over $595million worldwide and, at time of writing, becoming the seventh highest-grossing movie of the year. When you combine a much-beloved nostalgia property aimed squarely at a generation that remembers it from their childhoods, many of whom now have kids and therefore have a reason other than a weekly film column to go see it – with an A-list voice cast and trailers showcasing sumptuous visuals and hinting at remastered versions of the original’s fabulous soundtrack – it’s going to be a winner. Suffice it to say, the lights and heating will be kept on in the Magic Kingdom for another week.

So, in financial terms, The Lion King is the hit that few doubted it would be. 

Artistically… well that’s a bit more complicated.

There’s no doubt that something special has happened here in technical terms. As per Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, the technology being used to bring Simba, Nala, Scar, and the other characters to life (I assume you know who they are; if not, stop reading cinema journalism and go watch some damn movies!) is practically indistinguishable from magic.

I’ve heard the word “photorealism” bandied about when discussing the true to life but with talking animals look of this picture but even that feels insufficient. Every bit of fur and feather moves realistically in the African breeze; eyes glint authentically, models move as they do in real life, and you can almost feel the hot sun beating through the screen. It’s beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring, and simply gorgeous to look at and I challenge anyone to disagree with me having seen it. 

Honestly, I’ve not been this impressed with the technology in a movie in a long time and I have the feeling that even the people who invented it aren’t quite sure of just what it can achieve. This is the start of something big folks! The aesthetics of The Lion King  are such as to set a new high bar in how a movie can look!

In fact, if there is one flaw in the way The Lion King  looks, it is that the faces of the animal characters are realistic to the point that it becomes hard to read human emotions into their faces and therefore the voice acting is given a slightly lacklustre and incongruous feel.

The casting is where the bag gets significantly more mixed. Donald Glover does a competent job playing grown-up Simba while 12-year-old JD McCrary brings a fun energy to the younger incarnation of the character. Beyoncé is at least useful as Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and ally, and is given a bigger slice of the action than the character did in the original. However, while nobody can doubt Beyoncé’s immense, near-peerless, talent as a singer and a pop culture personality… voice acting just doesn’t seem to be her bag. She’s not bad at it in any way… just a little flat. Meanwhile, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan have fun as warthog and meerkat pairing Timon and Pumba but aren’t given enough room to move and British comic John Oliver feels out of his depth as the officious but kind-hearted Zazu, but that may just be because he has to live up to Rowan Atkinson’s original version.

If there is a standout vocal performance in The Lion King, then it is Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villainous and scheming Scar. While Ejiofor’s depiction of the character is more subtle and less flamboyant than Jeremy Irons’ 1994 performance, he adds a fragility and sense of having been driven to evil by psychological damage and pain, that makes his version feel more unpredictable, unhinged, and ultimately more of a legitimate threat. I’m not arguing that his version is better than that of Irons’ but it certainly fits this movie’s more realistic feel than a similarly camp performance would have.

Oh, and a quick note on music… it’s massively disappointing. In fact, to childhood fans of the original movie, it’s downright heartbreaking. Apart from a spine-tingling rendition of Circle of Life at the beginning, each song feels like a stunted and poorly rehashed karaoke version of a better original. You will not want to Spotify the soundtrack for this one folks!

The key quandary raised, at least for me, by The Lion Kingis whether or not a stunningly impressive technical achievement can compensate for a story that we’ve been told better elsewhere (both on stage and screen) that doesn’t really try to do anything innovative or impressive on a non-superficial level. The plot points are the same, the characters are more-or-less identical, the pacing, tone, and structure are completely unchanged; while it’s not technically a shot-for-shot remake there are many, many, many shots that are the same.

Essentially, when choosing whether or not to give this version of The Lion King anyof your time or money, think about James Cameron’s 2009 visually stunning but ultimately empty and insubstantial blockbuster monster Avatar. If you liked that for the slick and modern retelling of a Disney story (it was, after all, a thinly veiled copy of Pocahontas) that it was and considered it worthwhile then give The Lion King 2019 a shot – otherwise just re-watch the DVD and save yourself the ticket price.

 

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