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One of the things that’s important when you’re about to embark on a creative endeavor is to ask what medium you should use to tell your story. Should the story you’re telling be a film? Or would it benefit from listeners being able to binge-listen it in the form of a podcast? Should it be animated, so that abstract concepts and fantastical ideas can be conveyed more easily? Or maybe it only needs to be a well considered essay or novella.
Each medium has specific strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out how to navigate them is an essential part of the storytelling process.
Sadly, that seems not to have been something the creators of the new Lion King considered. This new version has photorealistic animals and surroundings but while it’s impressive as a technological feat, it falls short when for one basic reason: The lions can’t emote.
The hand drawn animation in the original Lion King gave the characters a memorable expressiveness. I still remember the horror on Young Simba’s face as the wildebeest stampede began, threatening to take his life and the life of his father. Jeremy Irons’ delicious performance as Scar was greatly augmented by that character’s over-the-top facial animations. All of this is lost in the conversion to the photorealistic 2019 version.
This might be acceptable and potentially even interesting if this movie veered in an entirely different direction with the story. Instead, many sequences are remade almost shot-for-shot, only with lions that can’t express themselves and with musical numbers that remove much of the fantasy and visual magic that helped propel the original tracks to become 10x platinum (the highest selling soundtrack ever for an animated film). Unfavorable comparisons are inevitable.
Siddhant Adlakha breaks it down well over at his Patreon page (free for now):
What this film is, though, is an exercise in nostalgia. Not the wistful tinge of memory — rather corporate nostalgia, as a tool of commerce, wherein bare-minimum familiarity is a benchmark for trade. As someone who enjoys Disney and Universal theme parks, the concept of manufactured nostalgia isn’t lost on me (sign me the fuck up for the obnoxiously expensive Galaxy’s Edge), but where the new Lion King departs from its ilk is how nakedly it puts Disney’s soulless corporatism is on display. Watching it is no more or less ethical than watching Avengers: Endgame, though it feels far more ugly.
The Lion King (2019) is a film that flattens expression. Its pursuit of “photorealism” has rendered its characters zombies, unable to emote even as much as real animals. Twelve-year-old JD McCray performs admirably as young Simba, his otherwise sprightly voice breaking and quivering as he discovers Mufasa’s body — the most hard-hitting scene in the original. Though here, in the “live-action” re-creation, the lion prince’s discovery is met with a deadpan expression, and a prodding akin to curiosity rather than desperation.
Jon Favreau is a supremely talented filmmaker and what he’s accomplished here hasn’t really been done before. I hope that he and the incredible visual effects artists that helped to make this movie are next able to apply their talents where form and function work more hand in hand.
A few other takes on Lion King worth considering:
- Listen to our podcast review of the film.
- Emma Stefansky puts my rage into words at Thrillist, where she writes about how the new Lion King absolutely destroys the classic villain song, “Be Prepared.”
- Matt Zoller Seitz ponders the possibilities of this particular style of filmmaking.
- On YouTube, Mark Kermode wonders whether this was the best way to tell this particular story.
The next episode of my new podcast, Culturally Relevant, is out now! I chatted with The Farewell director Lulu Wang. Then, my wife and I review the film from a Chinese-American perspective. If you are so inclined, check it out and leave a review. I have a lot planned for this season of the show and I’m excited to share it with you all.
Plus, in the podcast, I recommend and discuss some of the following pieces:
- Jeff Maysh has a great yarn over at The Daily Beast on how LA’s “Dine and Dash Dater” was apprehended.
- Jacey Fortin asks us to consider the story behind the stories that go viral online.
- Amanda Mull discusses the rise of coffee shaming.
- A weird result of the Trump administration: red caps of all kinds are, if not going out of style, then causing stress for the companies and people that were once fans of them.
- Frank Ifurna talks about the real mid-life crisis that’s coming for us. Fun times.
- David Crosby walked out of an interview with Scott Feinberg and Feinberg posted the audio for all to hear. The last few minutes of this podcast episode are astonishing.
- I’ve always suspected this and now Harvard Business review has the data to prove it: if your boss knows how to do your job, then you will more likely be happier at work.