‘The Lion King’ remake is a visually stunning mistake
The technology is amazing, but this is absolutely not what Disney was supposed to do with it.
The remake of “The Lion King” is a textbook example of what happens when the artistic style doesn’t match the story. The CGI here is beautiful, and it often feels as though you’re watching real animals move through a real environment. However, that same CGI also drains every drop of life and joy out of a beloved story. What was once a Shakespearean tale — “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet” — of growing up and facing your demons becomes a weird, CGI Animal Planet documentary.
The story is the same one we’re all familiar with. A young lion prince deals with a life turned upside down by familial betrayal. The plot follows the original animated movie almost identically, and the few changes that do exist are largely cosmetic. Adult Nala (voiced by Beyoncé) gets a handful of new lines, though the movie also does nothing new with them. Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively) also get a ton of new dialogue, though some of that might be due to ad-lib from the two comics.
The biggest change is in the visuals, which on a purely surface level, really are stunning. This is CGI at its most realistic, with a solid 90% of the movie seemingly indistinguishable from an Animal Planet documentary. The other 10% almost achieves that level. The whole thing is realistic enough to inspire jokes that the movie was made by real-life animal actors trying their best.
But this isn’t supposed to be a documentary. The primary goal of a fictional movie, in my opinion, is to engross the audience in an impactful story. An important part of telling that story is by finding actors that can communicate that emotion.
On the more realistic-looking animals, Disney already has a history of creating well-rounded characters. Rocket Raccoon was beautifully emotive in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers” movies. On the specific topic of lions, it managed to create a wonderfully expressive Aslan in its “Chronicles of Narnia” movies. Both aforementioned characters have faces that are closely based on real animals but still manage to bring a ton of depth and emotion to their scenes.
But in the new version of “The Lion King,” we get nothing close to Disney’s previous at-bats. The animals have a heartbreaking, inspiring — and sometimes hilarious — story to tell, and there’s almost no sign of an expression anywhere. They might as well have cardboard cutouts of animals and sync the voices to those.
And before you say “that’s just part of the realism,” Google “lion angry” or “lion scared.” Real animals are capable of plenty of nuance, especially when you add in animal behaviors like the movement of the ears. Sadly, there’s no sign that the people who made this movie knew that.
Don’t watch “The Lion King.” Wait until Disney uses the technology to actually tell a story instead of killing one they already had.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.