Great singing and great storytelling… but not so great emoting.
The Lion King is a remake of an animation film that's inspired by a Shakespearean play (and also might be a blatant lift from Kimba the White Lion– oh, we don't talk about that at the House of the Mouse? Okay.).
If you've watched The Lion King, circa 1994, you'll be familiar with the plot for the remake: after Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) murders Mufasa (James Earl Jones), a young Simba (JD McCrary) escapes, only to return later as an adult (Donald Glover) to restore balance to the Pride Lands.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
The live-action (is it though, given that the entirety of the movie is all CGI?) film might be a remake but there are some things that stood out.
Chiwetel Ejiofor went with an ominous Scar. Unlike Jeremy Irons' camp portrayal in the 1994 film, Ejiofor's version is menacing, grim. This is an antagonist that believes itself to be the rightful ruler, the emaciated hero, if you will. This darker take isn't bad, it's different. It's good-different, which shows that you don't always have to be slavish to the original.
The camaraderie between Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively) is pure magic. Something about Rogen's Cookie Monster voice really befits the look of a warthog and Eichner's high-strung cadence crescendoes from a tiny meerkat strikes me as funny. They are the comedic relief in a film that's a more serious take of its predecessor.
With regards to the music, I'm in the camp that's all for it. There's a freshness to the new arrangement. Maybe not so much with "Be Prepared" but I dig "Hakuna Matata", "Circle of Life", "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and the rest.
So, the CGI used in this film is wondrous. You'd think that you're at the African plains watching that glorious sun to rise and be bathed in its light. Animals move like animals, the rustle in the trees move like the wind blowing through them. There is much skill in this manufacturing of—to borrow a phrase—a whole new world. I'll be surprised if The Lion King didn't win some sort of technical award. With such a paragon of realism applied in this film, there shouldn't be any… oh, I dunno push-backs, right?
What we didn't like
Wrong. There is one push-back and it encompasses the ENTIRE FILM.
Alas, with such photo-realism, the emotions never really carry through. When Simba is sad, he looks like… a realistic lion. When Pumbaa is excited, he just looks like a really active warthog. Any time, we try to discern how the character is feeling, is only through their dialogue or from the beats of the movie. It's weird. Like we're watching a nature documentary but there's a lion doing lion things while its lion mouth is spouting human speech.
And that misstep is greatly evidenced by the musical numbers. Take a gander at this clip:
If you close your eyes and listen to this, you can picture Donald Glover posturing as he hits those notes. He's really feeling the music. In your mind's eye, he's gyrating to the beats.
But when you compare that to the visuals of The Lion King, it's jarring. Other films like the Dumbo remake have realism up to a point, to allow for the titular elephant to emote. For The Lion King, I'm not emotionally anchored to the story: I don't buy into Nala (Beyoncé) and Simba's romance, I can't tell if Pumbaa is really athrilled with each break of the wind, I'm not empathic to Mufasa's passing, the list goes on.
What to look out for
According to Jon Favreau, the director, he mentioned that the entire movie is CGI with the exception of one shot. He didn't reveal which shot it was but this should be something to take your mind off on how much you missed the original movie, Kimba the White Lio– I mean, the animated The Lion King.
The Lion King is out in theatres.