Cast: (voiced by) Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jeff Nathanson
There is a certain prevailing attitude in cinema dating at least as far back as the French film critic André Bazin which holds that the ultimate goal of any film is to capture reality as closely as can possibly be attained. In Bazin’s own words, “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making”. Thus he was largely receptive towards the works of the French Poetic Realism and Italian Neo-Realism film movements, which both favoured natural-looking aesthetics and restrained editing styles, and was more dismissive of German Expressionism and Soviet Montage, which blatantly defied such conventions. Bazin’s critics have since contended that ‘realism’ is in itself a construction and that the true measure of film, or indeed of art, is the application of form in service of function. The trick is in finding the best way to tell a certain story, constructing an appropriate reality through which to apply such a method and then maintaining it consistently according to its own rules and logic (in film theory jargon, this is called verisimilitude). This applies whether the film’s world strictly adheres itself according to what we recognise as reality (i.e. realism) or exists entirely within its own fabricated artifice (formalism). Most films tend to fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I’m simplifying and omitting much of the scholarship almost to the point of distortion, but that’s the basic idea as I understand it.
So, why am I writing about the thoughts of a French critic who died in 1958 in a review of Disney’s The Lion King? Because I think that this so-called ‘live-action’ remake of the 1994 animated classic illustrates, perhaps clearer than any other picture before it, the logical fallacy of Bazin’s filmic ideal. Even in 2019 where the most popular movies in the world are about superheroes, space wizards and sentient toys (all of which, incidentally, are owned by Disney), there still remains an outlook, one that Hollywood is guilty of perpetuating, that deems ‘realism’ to be of greater worth and merit than other forms of creative expression (such as, to give just one example, animation). It falls under the same superficial hierarchy that treats drama as more prestigious than comedy or ‘adult’ fiction as inherently superior to ‘children’s’ fiction. Even with the live-action blockbusters that now dominate the box office, films that objectively cannot take place within our own reality, audiences will espouse the virtues of ‘realism’ to defend the Marvel films for tending to have flat, drab colour palettes or criticise the Star Wars films for logical inconsistencies. Since ‘realism’ also necessarily invites us to embrace that which is familiar, that might explain in part the enormous popularity of Disney’s recent string of live-action remakes. It gives Disney licence to repackage some of their most beloved movies into a more ‘realistic’ format that the audience has been conditioned to believe translates to ‘better’.
Indeed, there’s something almost insidious about the way the press has persisted in referring to The Lion King as ‘live-action’ despite the film containing not one single image that wasn’t constructed by a computer. As far as I can tell it is not a term that Disney has ever used in their own promotion of the film, but it isn’t one that they’ve rejected either. The movie is a photorealistic animation; while the effects are often so convincing that you could be forgiven for thinking they could have actually shot some of these scenes in the African savannah with real lions and hyenas, it is an animation none the less. To some this is nothing more than a distinction without a difference. The lions look real, therefore ‘live-action’ is as serviceable a term as any other. Even so, because Hollywood has continued to assign such automatic merit to ‘realism’ above all other creative approaches and have given the live-action blockbuster a certain degree of class and respectability over films that favour more unconventional styles (the only appropriate word for which is snobbery), this all strikes me as a deceptive marketing ploy. If this movie is to be regarded as ‘live-action’, a form that we’re being taught is a more legitimate form of art than animation by virtue of its ‘realism’, then the inherent implication is that the 2019 remake of The Lion King is a ‘real’ movie while the 1994 classic is to be dismissed as nothing more than a children’s cartoon.
I think it’s easy to write The Lion King off as a cheap, lazy attempt by Disney to cash in on a movie that people already love by simply covering it with a new coat of paint. However, while this movie is many things indeed, it is patently obvious from the very first frame that ‘lazy’ and ‘cheap’ aren’t any of them. Clearly some tremendous effort and attention to detail has gone into making the animals all look and feel like living, breathing creatures from the intricacies of their physical appearances (not just the fur but also their skeletal and muscular structures) to their movements and the spaces they inhabit. As the sun rises over the savannah and we see the dozens of mammals and birds galloping across the plain, treading through the rivers and grasslands, and soaring across the sky, it’s almost like you could be watching a nature documentary beyond David Attenborough’s wildest dreams while ‘The Circle of Life’ plays in the background. There’s no camera to speak of since the imagery is entirely computer generated, but the frame sweeps and strides through these scenes with natural deliberation, as if the perspective were that of a person or device with real weight. When the physically imposing Mufasa or the lean, haggard Scar inhabit a frame, the animating team make every effort to convey their characterisations through their appearances, gestures and movements and they’ve clearly thought extensively about how these intelligent, lively beasts would interact with their physical spaces and environment.
From a purely technological standpoint, The Lion King is a marvel. As before in The Jungle Book, Favreau’s previous effort to remake a Disney animated classic, he and his team have built an entire world that looks uncannily, breathtakingly real and have populated it with a whole array of creatures who look so authentic, you’d never have guessed that they were nothing more than a sequence of ones and zeroes. Still, there remains for me the larger question behind it all: what basic, intrinsic value does ‘realism’ have in a movie where talking, singing animals re-enact Hamlet? What exactly was missing in the vividly expressive and strikingly colourful style of animation in the 1994 original to make Disney think the story needed to be told all over again in the exact same way but with plain yet photorealistic imagery? If there is indeed room for this story to be told in a live-action format, how can that possibly be best accomplished by slavishly following the example of a film that was conceptually intended to be realised in the form of hand-drawn animation? While the 2019 movie is half an hour longer than the original, it is nevertheless the exact same story told with the exact same characters in the exact same way with just a few interludes, extensions and revisions. Timon and Pumba provide some additional comic relief, Nala gets her own song, the hyenas are made a little more intimidating, and our understanding of the story and its characters is none the deeper because of it (also, for all their additions, they inexplicably chose to cut the scene in which the movie’s whole moral gets taught).
While the effort and thought that went into recreating the film’s most iconic images, characters and moments is self-evident, what’s sorely missing is the passion, the ambition, and the hidden X-factor behind the images and between the edits that makes Hitchcock’s Psycho a work of genius and Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake a pale imitation. When I think of the moments that stuck with me, they weren’t necessarily those that departed the most from the first film but rather those that were best served by the photorealistic format. The two that come immediately to mind are the first scene, where the animals come from far and wide to see the newborn Lion Prince while ‘Circle of Life’ plays, and a strange little scene in the second act where a tuft of Simba’s fur travels the vast length of the African landscape in this elaborate Circle of Life chain reaction to reach Rafiki so that he might learn of the prince’s continued existence. Crucially, both are sequences in which the animals do not talk and we are able to stare in awe at the wonderful scenery and immerse ourselves in the visual and audial (sans dialogue) storytelling taking place. Through the use of light, movement, natural sound, and music, the movie ably conveys what is happening in both of these moments in terms that even the youngest viewers can understand. Had they the will to make it, perhaps there’s a version of this movie that could have realised this approach on a more complete level. Whether it would even have worked is anybody’s guess, but at least it would have been different.
For all the movie is able to convey through its painstakingly crafted visuals and carefully thought-out simulations of the animals, it doesn’t change the simple fact that The Lion King is a human story being performed by creatures incapable of human expression. Even with the subtle nuances of their designs and actions, there’s only so much heavy lifting those little touches can do. What obvious and distinguished personalities the characters had in the 1994 film are almost wholly absent because the movie is severely limited in the kinds of expressions and movements it can have the characters perform by virtue of its ‘realistic’ format. The musical scenes, such as the young Simba and Nala’s rendition of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ or Timon and Pumba’s iconic ‘Hakuna Matata’ feel slower and duller because all the animators can really do is show the animals running with and around each other at a moderate distance in a backdrop that does little to inform the ideas being sung about. When the movie calls for some kind of big, emotional moment, as in the scene where Simba watches his father fall to his death, there is absolutely nothing to be read in the cub’s expression because, well… he doesn’t have one. The expressive animating style of the first film proved invaluable in the second and third acts as it helped allow the grown up versions of Simba and Nala to quickly be established and advanced as characters in what critically little time they had left (people forget how unusually long the first act is). This film doesn’t have that advantage.
Perhaps the crew hoped that the voice talent would be able to step in and make up for this disconnect, but they too are let down by the limitations of the format. Some actors are up to the task as far as the medium will allow them. Glover does well playing a Simba weighted down by the crushing burdens of his troubles and traumas. Eichner gets to show off his singing chops and enjoys a pretty good rapport with Rogen. Oliver is so perfectly cast as Zazu that had he shown up just as himself complete with spectacles and suit, I’d still have gone along with it. Others fare less well, especially Beyoncé who is only on form when she’s allowed to sing. The single unifying factor these performances all have however is that, however emotive their inflections and intonations, the animation cannot hope to match them. Before the movie was released, I remember watching a featurette showing a side-by-side comparison between some of the actors in the recording studio and the final on-screen result. I was particularly captivated by James Earl Jones and how much more compelling his physical performance was than his CGI counterpart because that’s how expressive and forceful a performer he is even in a recording booth. For all that the animated Mufasa was able to convey in Jones’ reprisal of the role, they may as well have reused the audio from 25 years before.
Ultimately, The Lion King is not in and of itself a bad film but that kind of figures. It’s a bit like if someone made an exact copy of the Mona Lisa on Microsoft Paint, they’d have to be a pretty good graphic designer in order to pull it off. Favreau is by all means a competent director and it’d be hard for him to go wrong with the tried and true formula that he so rigidly follows. However, by refusing to take full advantage of the technology and talent at their disposal and being bold enough to try making something well and truly different, all he and Disney were able to accomplish was in making a film that is almost exactly like the one that already existed but comparatively worse. What the movie gains in ‘realism’, it loses in beauty, expressiveness and magic. Never before have I seen a film demonstrate so definitively how limiting and counter-productive it is to strive for ‘realism’ in art at the expense of all else. The style of animation is more realistic, to be sure, and that is exactly the problem because realism was never what the 1994 film strived for. It told the story it wanted to tell in the way it knew how and this film, just like all the other live-action remakes Disney has produced before it, proves once again how right they were to tell the story in that original form. Not that the execs at Disney making the decisions will pay much mind. They’re too busy singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ on their way to the bank.