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Fair game for photorealism

Hollywood go-to guy Jon Favreau directs Disney remake of The Lion King

The Lion King (PG)
Running time 1hr 58min
Rating: **

LADIES and gentlemen, we are in the golden age of the photorealistic remake. After The Jungle Book was given the reboot treatment in 2016, it was only a matter of time before The Lion King followed in its footsteps; the brains behind the former
blockbuster, perennial Hollywood go-to-guy Jon Favreau, seemed a natural fit as director (‘better the devil you know’ and all that…). The results are, however, troublingly mixed.

It would be rather against form for this critic to summarise a film in quickfire, bulletpoint fashion, but there are only a few things you need to know about The Lion King 2.0 – it’s the sort of major, much-hyped release that demands special,
delicate treatment. Firstly, the animation is undoubtedly spectacular. We’ve come a long way from studios’ early experiments with can’t-believe-it’s-not-real CGI, which overwhelmingly failed to stand the test of time (2000’s Dinosaur or 2004’s The Polar Express look remarkably shoddy with hindsight); there’s nothing in this film which would seem vaguely out of place in an actual zoo. The lions are, of course, splendidly rendered; the hyenas have never looked more wondrously morbid. But a personal highlight for me was Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner), whose function as a comic relief figure in the original cartoon is invested with whole new dimensions by his startling manifestation here, as something ripped straight from TV’s Meerkat Manor. In this respect, the movie is nothing less than a landmark, a cinematic safari that showcases the industrial state-of-the- art in a way precious few animated projects are able to.

Secondly – and here’s the big caveat – this stark aesthetic realism is often at odds with the fantastical simplicity of the classic story. The original Lion King was an idealistic melodrama of good versus evil, leadership versus egoism, maturity versus inexperience; the lines feel a whole lot more blurred in this new film. Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor), far from the Calibanesque fiend of the original, feels like a blunted force, while new insights into Simba’s childhood are denied the punch they should have had by the dryness of the vision – the visuals are all very impressive, but the picture is not especially poignant or revelatory. Some will welcome this change of direction as a necessary step, serving to imbue a tale as old as time with new resonance and meaning; said meaning was, regrettably, lost on me.

Thirdly: the year is 2019 and Disney definitely knows it. This iteration of The Lion King is a lot loftier in its ambitions than its (very concise) predecessor, packing an extra half-hour into its runtime. It makes a genuine effort to draw in African talent (something that was virtually absent from the original) while simultaneously rallying an exquisite A-list cast (Donald Glover voices Simba, Seth Rogen, John Oliver and Beyoncé get star billings). It’s a shame that, for all this promise, many of the other changes feel very unnecessary. A couple of much-loved songs have been given the chop, while attempts to develop the
backstories of key characters fall flat.

Here’s the thing: for all its accomplishments in the visual department, this is a hollow, sanitised movie. Watching it, one is likely to find themselves craving the effortlessness of the original, its sheer musical oomph – that’s something no amount of technical pizzazz can make up for.

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