½ Wildlife Documentary, ½ Shot-for-Shot Remake
Movies are meant to make you feel a range of emotions. From the opening moments of the film to the logos at the end of the reel, there is purpose in every single shot. Sadness, fear, excitement; depending on the context, these feelings can be exactly what the director meant to trigger in you as you watch.
The Lion King triggered discomfort.
That’s not to say that the whole movie is terrible or uncomfortable. However, a lot of it is. This movie skirts a fine line between a wildly beautiful tech demo and a shot-for-shot remake of the animated movie from 1994. The key element that this movie stumbles on is in the eyes. The eyes of the animals are often dead an unmoving.
This seems to be purposeful. It always seemed like the goal of the film was the make the animals look as realistic as possible while also making a movie that was faithful to the source material. In almost all aspects of that goal, they succeeded. But at what cost? Cue the gif of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park saying, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
There are repeated moments throughout the movie where the mouths of the animals are emoting how you would expect, but the eyes don’t move at all. There are some exceptions to this though. Anger is almost always a full expression. There’s some slight movement to the eyebrows in some scenes of sadness or surprise. The animals are just often too realistic to hit the exact emotional notes of the original and this removes us from the experience.
A comparable experience is Alita: Battle Angel. The director made a conscious choice to give the female lead, Alita, big, oversized anime eyes like she has in the original manga. However, almost everyone else in the film (if not literally everyone else) has realistic, human proportions to their faces. The eyes were a creative choice that repeatedly removes the viewer from the experience due to how strange they are. While some would argue that this only solidifies Alita’s role as an “other,” they don’t treat the other cyborg characters in the same way; which undercuts Alita’s story by being a distraction.
The eyes in The Lion King are hardly the only problem though. In cartoons, the animators have an unlimited amount of potential in what they can create to emphasize comedy, fear, etc. The camera can swing any which way to help support the emotion of a scene. Timon can wear a hula skirt and sing a song to distract hyenas. Green smoke can permeate the air to make Scar seem more villainous during his big song.
The effort to be so realistic with this remake means that those same moments often fall flat. However, they employ these tactics in other places in the movie which means that they, on some level, understood how to execute these emotional beats correctly! It’s boggling wondering why they didn’t commit to doing it in one style or the other.
The movie has some truly beautiful moments. (The author viewed the film in RealD 3D) It has some scenes that transported me to the savanna in ways I haven’t experienced in a theater since Avatar in 2009. The attention to detail on the plethora of animals is so immaculate that it often is akin to watching an episode of Planet Earth in 4k while The Lion King soundtrack plays in the background. Those moments are truly extraordinary.
And then they start talking again.
This movie could potentially serve as a warning for Jon Favreau. Peter Jackson wanted to be on the very edge of the future of technology when he made The Hobbit films. Those movies were definitely not received in the way I bet he was expecting. Maybe he needs to take a step back and decide whether he wants to make gorgeous tech demos or recreate new versions of old stories.
This isn’t to say that The Lion King is bad. It is definitely a watchable movie that hits enough nostalgic notes to make it worth most people’s whiles. The voice acting and music are both worth the price of admission. It just spends a lot of time being soulless, and that’s what hurts the most.
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