Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Film Review: The Lion King

Return to the savannah for a retelling of The Lion King, featuring voices from the likes of Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Seth Rogen.

The latest remake to roll off the Disney production line, The Lion King sees director Jon Favreau reapplying his VFX wizardry from 2016's The Jungle Book to maximum effect.

A retelling of 1994's animated classic, The Lion King is a fully realised CGI savannah, presided over by King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and his son Simba (initially voiced by JD McCrary, later by Donald Glover).

But unlike The Jungle Book, which deviated a fair amount from the original animated film, The Lion King follows the exact contours of its forebear, with only one or two exceptions. A longer piece of exposition here, a Beyonce number crowbarred in for Oscar glory there – strip those away and Favreau's film is almost beat for beat the same film as before.

Where it deviates is in its presentation. Using cutting-edge visual effects, Favreau has been able to essentially conjure up an Attenborough documentary from thin air. Everything from the mighty lions to the tiny dung beetles look like they were just filmed out on the Serengeti just yesterday.

However, as pretty and as impressive as it is, Favreau's The Lion King is the equivalent of an exquisite sizzle reel. Imagine you've just walked into an electronics store; you stride past the stereos and the laptops until you reach the vast TVs that line the back wall.

All the bright OLED screens are showing the same images that illustrate the detailed 4K visuals; a flowing river, a tree blowing in the wind, a herd of gazelle darting across an expansive savannah. You gaze at the images, marvelling at the detail around the eyes of the gazelle or the splashes of water as they cascade over the rocks on the riverbed.

But you don't connect with any of it on an emotional level. They're just hollow images intended to sell you a product, which is this case is a vapid, shinier version of a story you've already seen before a million times. Hand over your money, The Lion King implores you, to see how we've taken something masterful and stripped away everything great.

The animals simply don't emote in the same way a cartoon can; in fact, they emote less than a real lion, almost as if the animators were struggling to make their lips (do lions have lips?) without sending the film plunging into the uncanny valley. The colours are muted and 'real', rather than bright and vibrant; the musical numbers are restrained rather than electric.

Glover and Knowles-Carter barely register as Simba and Nala, with the latter coming across as a disproportionately huge star for such a nothing role. Jones sounds good in his reprise of Mufasa, if not a little weary, while Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner and Chiwetel Ejiofor are the diamonds in the rough as Pumbaa, Timon and Scar respectively. The latter exudes menace while Rogen and Eichner finally inject some humour to proceedings when they pop up in the second half.

The Verdict: 4.5/10

With a few exceptions, Disney's recent wave of remakes has thus far been a rather uninspiring thing – The Lion King is just the latest to regurgitate the same stuff and repackage it as something familiar yet 'new'. Aside from marvelling at the visual effects, this lengthy remake does little to justify its own existence.

The Lion King is in cinemas across Australia now.

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