A lot of people like to write off animated films as simple, mindless films made for children. Unlike a lot of other genres and technological advancements in film, animation occupies a special spot in it all. It’s the only thing that really gives you endless possibilities to show off the silly and fantastical, all without losing the viewer’s immersion. CGI has definitely given filmmakers an outlet to pull off things others never could have before, but more often than not, the immersion is broken by the computer animation having to interact with real life people and environments. You still have to conform to the real world and how it operates, but animation pulls out all the stops and lets your creativity run wild. Adapting an animated film to the live-action format is always an interesting experiment, but you need to remember that a lot of them were cartoons for a reason. 

The Lion King (2019) is exactly what it is: an updated version of the 1994 animated classic. Simba (JD McCrary) is born, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) tells him the responsiblities of being king, Scar (Chwietel Ejiofor) kills Mufasa, so on and so forth. There you go. 

Yeah, it’s pretty much the same movie, almost shot for shot at times. Disney has assaulted us with live-action remakes of their animated classics for the past few years and The Lion King (2019) is probably the most interesting one yet. Not from a story or visual standpoint, but from a technological standpoint. This isn’t really “live-action”, as there are of course no humans, but it basically follows the same formula of bringing these old Disney films to life with a more realistic aesthetic. The effects are no doubt incredible, with some of the finest computer generated animals and environments I’ve ever seen on display here. Everything from the weight of how they moved, the detail of their individual furs and feathers, the stunning vistas of Africa from the sprawling savannas to the desolate desert. Yes, even the environments are all CGI, so again it’s not really live-action, but it looks so real, it may as well have been. It was like watching an episode of Planet Earth, but with talking animals. The talking was definitely the downside to the effects, though. The mouth movements just look awkward coming from realistic looking animals and it sometimes veers into the uncanny valley territory. 

But that brings us the biggest problem and irony of the film: all of this realism makes everything feel so lifeless and stale. I watched the original film the night before seeing this one and in retrospect, it was both a good and bad idea because it made me fully realize why a lot of these remakes fall flat. The animation in the original is gorgeous, especially with how much the colors pop. The Can’t Wait to be King segment is mesmerizing with how the natural green and blue colors of the Pride Lands swap out for pink and purple trees and flowers. Here, it’s just a standard nature backdrop. A large part of the appeal with animated movies is that they’re allowed to be cartoony and over the top. The Lion King (1994) allows its characters to do things animals clearly can’t do, like dress in drag and do the hula. When you swap out that cartoonishness for realism, a lot of the fun and charm is lost. There are no groups of animals stacked on top of each other or the floor cracking open and causing mountains to rise. With every story beat and iconic shot recreated, we’re pretty much watching the same thing, but with a lot less splendor. It felt constantly at odds with itself because it kept striving for realism, but still had talking animals.

All of the classic songs obviously return here and just like the last time, they’re catchy, fun, and develop the characters and story in natural ways. It’s just it was during the songs where the original got the most visually exciting, so again, they’re a lot less fun. The voice cast is pretty good overall, though. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba were the highlights, providing much needed comic relief and fun to the mix. It was nice to have James Earl Jones back, although it just begs the question why they didn’t bring back some other original cast members. Rowan Atkinson would have been a welcome edition, since John Oliver couldn’t seem arsed to be there. Unfortunately, Simba is miscast yet again with Donald Glover not having a kingly, commanding voice at all. Matthew Broderick’s Simba is the only real low point of the original film for me, so I was disappointed to see another misfire with the casting of the titular king. I just never get the sense of him being a king at all. At least JD McCrary as young Simba was great as well as Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyonce Knowles as young and old Nala, respectively. For the most part, everyone did a pretty good job at reciting the original, erm, I mean new dialogue. 

I can’t fault The Lion King (2019) for being an achievement on a technical scale, especially when it comes to the visual effects. It no doubt all looks stunning and it’s not a poorly made film, but even the best special effects can’t help something that just feels so lifeless and stale. When animated films are adapted for a live-action format is when you really notice how important animation really is when it comes to bringing stories to life. Ignorant folk can disparage animated films all they want, but in many cases, especially this one, they’re sometimes just better. 


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