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Film Review - The Lion King (2019)

Movie Watching by Tim.


The Lion King (2019) - From the gut fresh from seeing the movie and a little late to the game.


Disney’s CGI remake of the 1994 version of The Lion King has been out for several weeks and has since become the highest grossing ‘animated’ movie of all time.


First - Can we all agree this is animation and not live action?


Second - Personally, the original version ranks among a handful of movies in my ‘resonates at such a personal level, I can’t explain what it means to me’ list. As such, I have been dragging my feet to go see the re-imagined version and had to keep reminding myself to have an open mind going in to see it. The Lion King was also my first re-imagined version movie coming out Disney studios.


I watched it in the theater, one of the new fancy ones with recliners, snacky foods, and beer. We enjoyed pretzel bites instead of popcorn and I enjoyed a 32-oz Salt brewery’s Kick Axe Kolsch. Why a theater is selling 24-oz and 32-oz beers seemed a bit odd but I didn’t argue.


I have always found the opening sequence of the original to be an amazing example of hand drawn animation and one of the best opening sequences ever blending music and visuals. And I still do.


I found the CGI opening remake to be ‘nice’, but I felt it tried too hard to look like the original, and lacked the emotion and heart of the original, as well as the technical skill. Today, anyone can make an amazingly amazing sequence with CGI, but the original’s hand drawn spectacle should be studied by generations to come. The modern sequence, to new eyes, could seem interesting but it failed the draw me into the story like the original did. I always get goosebumps at the thump and flash to The Lion King title card in the original. I didn’t get that with the modern version. I also found the ‘follow the mouse’ opening scene to be too long and a slow way to start the movie.


I felt the modern version was just trying to keep up with the original until the “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” sequence. While I enjoyed the throw-back nod in the original, the original’s psychedelic sequence was a bit disorienting. Enjoyable, but it didn’t advance the story. The modern version blended much better with the story and less of a distraction. There were enough nods to the original’s sequence while giving us something new, and possibly better.


From then on, I found myself settling in and giving the new version a chance. When I first sat down, I mentally was telling myself, “try to imagine seeing this version as the first time to the story.” It pretty much was impossible to maintain wearing that hat. As the movie moved forward, I had to remind myself less and less to forget the original.


In the original, I have always found the animation in the sequence of Mufasa cliff leaping to save Simba during the stampede to be unrefined, subpar, and a distraction. I was glad to find myself more engaged in the stampede sequence in the new version. I do wish the family that brought their 3 year old had decided to take a break from the theater when their daughter was having heaving sobs during that sequence and consoling her in the seats in front of me. It was distracting for the rest of us. But, that’s today’s theater-going experience.


The mental acceptance I had after the "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" sequence was amplified after the stampede scene. I was now sold on this version of the story. Those two sequences felt more cohesive in telling the story. There were a few sequences I felt were added to modernize the story to be more inclusive. I guess there is something to be said to make the stories more reflective of the modern perspective, but when they feel like they are added in for that reason and that reason only, it feels disingenuous.


I do feel the Pumba, Timon, Scar, and Mufasa characters were lacking the personality and charm of the originals (yes, I am aware Mufasa was voiced by the same actor in the two movies, but I felt the 2019 version felt more ‘read the script’ than ‘feel the script.) I also felt the singing voices were ‘too good’.


I know Nathan Lane and Ernie Sibella have good voices, but their versions, talking and singing, will still be my ‘standard’. They can sing well, but their off key versions of the voices and comic timing and inflection increased the charm of the characters. I did not enjoy the modification to ‘Hakuna Matata’ (if you’ve seen the new version, you probably know the section I’m referring to.) I didn’t find it necessary or funny. I’m not a prud; it’s just the original’s timing and comedy are better. And funnier.


Jeremy Irons’ Scar was much more deviant and frightful than Chiwetel Ejiofor’s. I didn’t find myself in fear of Ejiofor’s Scar. Irons’ Scar was slimy, deviant, frightful, and evil. We knew when he first spoke he was the bad guy.


Having ‘better’ voices ruined, to a small degree, several of the characters and several iconic songs for me.


And I guess that brings up a point many others have commented on - the CGI faces didn’t convey emotions well. I understand they were going for real animals as the actors and minimized the anthropomorphism of them. But I feel they went too far to eliminate them looking like cartoon versions.


I have cats in my house. I love my cats. And I think I can read their facial expressions and body language to know their emotions and feelings. In The Lion King, I felt the body language and facial expressions, particularly the eyes, were lacking. The characters were bland and boring. If they were ‘real’ actors having a complete lack of expression in their body language and facial expressions, we would feel creeped out.


How many costumed movies (Planet of the Apes, etc) have reported going to extreme extents to ensure the actors behind the makeup are recognizable and can convey passion, anger, etc through their eyes and body, beyond the makeup? CGI characters should be held to those standards. If an actor can’t convey a sense of feeling with their eyes, we fault the actor. If the entire cast can’t convey emotions with their body or eyes, we should fault the director. In this case, I fault the director for not allowing us to feel, and connect, with the characters’ emotions when we know animals do have facial expressions.


They did a great job on animating the lions as cubs. The eager kitten eyes, the awkward clumsiness as they are still figuring out how to control their bodies, etc, were done very well. The animation on the adult animals wasn’t as well done.


In addition, there were several times my brain and eyes screamed “CGI action” where the action and lighting were off, but maybe, just maybe, I could have let those slide if the animation conveyed emotional ‘realness’.


The modern CGI and animation is often lacking of the ability to impact us at a deeper level than 'popcorn grinder'. Heck, take some pointers from your Pixar peers on how to connect with us as emotion and mental levels beyond the eyeball levels (watch Wall-E, Up, etc on how to get us to connect with a story and characters in the first 15 minutes.)


I don’t know if the classic book The Illusion of Life by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas is still used in animation classes, but it should. Heck, pretty much any the books by Disney’s Nine Old Men should be required reading by animators and watching the technical sequences of the hand-drawn animation of old should be required studies. Yes. I know there are controversial sequences and stories told in movies of old, but watch the blending, skill, and storytelling through body movement, facial movement, and story telling. Study that. There’s a reason those sequences still resonate 40, 50, 60, or more years later.


Overall, I found the modern version did a good job of fixing some of the obvious story leaps of the original and was well done. The 2019 version was just not as entertaining as the original to someone who holds the original in a special list of special movies.


One of the trailers shown was for Mulan. This one felt like it not only was inspired by the original animated version but has the potential to be better than the original. It feels like it found the guts of the story and worked from there vs The Lion King’s ‘simple’ re-telling of the original.


I enjoyed watching the movie but I’ll always consider the original a better movie.


The Lion King (1994): A


The Lion King (2019): B


Popcorn Grinder scale: I had pretzel bites, but I didn’t find this pretty much scene for scene retelling to be a popcorn grinder.


Comfort movie scale: I’d always pick the original or the Broadway soundtrack over watching or listening to the 2019 versions. I found the modern versions to be lacking the emotions of the original version or even the modernized (at the time) Broadway soundtrack. I don’t think I’ll be pulling this disc off the shelf and loading it up for a comfort movie.


Questions or comments about the review, feel free to comment on the blog or email Tim at tim@prosceniafilmsociety.org

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