At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Lion King “2019”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Animated Adventure-Drama/ Voices of: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre/ Runtime: 118 minutes

I feel that it must be said that in this time and place where visual effects have managed to make anything you can think of an incredible reality, this has resulted in a significant altering in just what exactly is the difference between telling a narrative in either live-action or animation. Indeed at one particular time in film history, animation was used with the purpose in mind in order to function as an addendum to make up for the restrictions that live-action inherently had placed on it when it came to showcasing ideas that were truly grand and magical. Yet thanks to the skill and use of computers in this day and age, filmmakers have now been able to completely eradicate that particular divide. As such wise-cracking yet extraordinary genies, and pieces of furniture with personality are now able to be brought to life in a way that could never have been imagined before. Indeed even though Disney has seen great success in its business decision to bring into live-action the vast majority of their animated library and these movies specifically are a reflection of the disintegration of that very divide, I definitely feel that The Lion King very much is the defining poster boy for this sea of change.

This is because even though in technical terms the film isn’t exactly a proper “live action remake” per se, it nevertheless has the same reasoning behind why it was brought into existence as some of the other live action remakes. That purpose would be to bring some of these truly timeless stories back to theaters while also giving them a sense of photo-realism unlike any other. When it comes to that, I think it is safe to say that this particular film is a true success as not only is this majestic from a technical perspective, but it is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous from beginning to end.

Sadly the recipe for success in regards to a film is never that simple. That is because what we consider to be possible in regards to live action filmmaking never will be the definition of what is possible for an animated film to do or not do. Indeed much like different forms of art, the expression of film has always been a decision based in style that is truly all its own. Indeed there are just some things that animation can capture perfectly that live action will never be able to showcase and this is why animated films will now and always be a crucial section of film as we know it.

Riveting mini lecture in film studies 101 aside, I definitely feel that this aspect is just where this version of Lion King sinks quite horrifically. This is because despite the fact that everything in this film looks astonishingly real, it nevertheless still manages to showcase that there really are limits to what reality can bring to the table especially when it comes to the needs that a narrative can require. A conflict that quite often it really has difficulty in surpassing. Thus as phenomenal as this film may look, this is still a movie-going experience which doesn’t even manage to ensnare the mind and bewitch the heart with the same emotional and captivating enchantment that the 1994 animated masterpiece brings to the lives of so many.

The plot is as follows: Honestly I feel you should know by now that, with few moments to the contrary, this film doesn’t really alter a lot when it comes to the overall story from the original film. With that being said, our story opens up in the continent of Africa and introduces us to the king and queen of a natural landmark known as Pride Rock. Their names are Mufasa and Sarabi and today is a big day for them. This is because Sarabi has just birthed a baby lion named Simba who will one day take over for Mufasa as ruler of all the land. Suffice it to say the news of the baby’s birth is joyously accepted and celebrated by all the animals that live in the realm. Well almost all. I say almost because there does seem to be an outlier in the celebrations. An outlier that takes the shape and form of Mufasa’s younger brother named Scar who, now that Simba has been born, has quickly been lowered in the pecking order in regards to who will take over much to his immense displeasure…

As the years go however we see that although Simba is rambunctious and fun-loving, particularly when spending quality time with his friend Nala, we also get to see just how eager he is to learn and really get a feel for the lands he will eventually rule as King, and so makes sure to listen to as much wisdom from his dad. Sadly all things must come to an end, and in this case, is isn’t long before we see that, thanks to Scar choosing to team up with a pack of deranged hyenas, a diabolical plan results in great tragedy and which causes Simba to have to flee the Pride Lands. Fortunately our young hero is found and “adopted” by a meerkat and warthog named Timon and Pumbaa, and spends the rest of his younger years living away from his birthright. However when the past comes back to find him, and he learns just what his departure has caused to happen to his home, he must make the difficult choice to either keep running from the past or embrace who he is meant to be, take down Scar, and assume his rightful spot as the one, true King….

Now the fact that nearly every little thing about this film is so gosh darn identical to the original masterpiece is assuredly enough in and out of itself to send the nostalgia-meter for anyone who grew up watching the original Lion King straight into the stratosphere. Suffice it to say then from the moment the film starts and the song “The Circle of Life” starts up I guarantee you all of those childhood memories will come rushing back and you will feel your heart race just a little bit. Then to add on to that even further it is actually pretty enjoyable when you get to hear and witness the updated versions of the iconic set of songs that were in the original given new life again. Indeed make no mistake: the original Lion King has in my opinion the #1 most phenomenal soundtrack in the history of animated films that Walt Disney Studios has ever produced so of course it isn’t hard to tell you that when it comes to the music what was great then is still great even now.

Yet with that being said I definitely feel that it is contained within the film’s moments of song and dance where you as an intelligent member of the movie going public will be able to see for yourself just what kind of extraordinary edge that the hand drawn animated film has over this remake. To put it as simply yet bluntly as possible: it’s all about theatrics. Now as to where you might start to notice this key difference I feel that most audience members will be able to detect it during the famous “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” song and dance routine which is meant to showcase both a young Simba’s desires once he ascends the throne, but also provide the narrative with a way for Simba and Nala to escape their appointed babysitter Zazu so they can proceed to poke around an off-limits elephant graveyard.

Now in the animated masterpiece from ’94 this moment in the film is very lively, engaging, and quite colorful as we get quite the variety of the animal kingdom joining in on the fun, and then the whole thing ends with a dancing tower of said animals all falling in on themselves with poor Zazu on the bottom thus giving Simba and Nala the chance to escape his babysitting duties. Sadly we now come to the 2019 version of that very same film, and it just for whatever reason is incapable of pulling this off. Indeed it seems that because this film is tethered towards making this look and feel as real as possible that a part of that requires that all the animals behave like they would in the wild. Now I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that in the wild observers and scientists aren’t treated to amazing animal towers that showcase, among other critters, giraffes and hippos all standing on each other’s backs and supporting one another in such a frivolous manner. To be fair there may be a lot of diversity in regards to how many animals are part of the scene, and the director does try to take things as far as realistically possible yet ultimately this proves to be a bar that this new look at a timeless classic is constantly struggling to fully reach let alone vault over.

Indeed I say constantly because this is most definitely an issue that keeps popping up throughout the film. One of the other moments is when it comes time for “Be Prepared”. This time however not only does Chiwetel Ejiofor, replacing Jeremy Irons as Scar, not get a chance to show if he can even sing it or not, but this honestly doesn’t have the same wow factor to it as compared to when you watch the animated version and there’s the puddles of icky green ooze that mutated the Ninja Turtles as well as hyena henchmen being blasted off worse than Team Rocket from Pokémon courtesy of geysers seemingly every 5 seconds. Heck even the more in tune with their comic side Timon and Pumbaa don’t get to do any amazing cliff jumping while in the midst of delivering an actually not half-bad retooling of that timeless song from a lot of childhoods “Hakuna Matata”. Indeed it’s almost as if Disney forgot that when you make things too realistic, you also take away the magic that made those things so loved and enjoyed in the first place, and boy does that show here!

Yet theatrics is only half of the issues with this film. The other half has to deal with the range, or lack thereof, of emotions that the cast of animal characters in this is able to convey. Now among the other things that they are known for, Disney has a time-honored reputation for having master-class animators who know how to, with the utmost of skill, humanize animal characters and then give them the ability to showcase an unusually high variety of complex emotions, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that this is because animators are given quite the significant amount of independence to endow significantly observable human-esque traits within the drawings that they come up with. Yet again though this is something that the 2019 Lion King plain and simply is not able to accomplish. Indeed this is because yet again there is only so much you can do when it comes to more realistic animated creatures in attempts to make them significantly more emotive than usual yet because they are supposed to be realistic that proves to be too much of a hindrance towards giving these characters the personality they require. Fortunately there is a blessing to be found amidst all this mess. A blessing which takes the form of the fact that there is an absolutely phenomenal cast that is the heart and soul of this film and who is quite capable of providing this cinematic outing with the emotion that it needs. Thus with that being said, I do feel that, having a history of being in front of the camera just as much as being behind it, Jon Favreau definitely knows a thing or 2 about what it takes to construct a cast for a film; a skill that is most certainly one that you will have no trouble seeing in this film. Now it should most certainly not come as a surprise to anyone reading this review that amongst the cast it is ultimately the vocal efforts of both Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen who steal the show, but this should come as very little surprise movie goer the dynamic duo that is Timon and Pumbaa have always been fan-favorites ever since the animated film first came out. Yet even with that fan-favorite quasi-sorta immunity from criticism behind them, I definitely feel that this duo manages to really bring something unique and fresh to these iconic characters in part because they themselves are very unique and intriguing performers in the world of entertainment, and it manages to shine through in every single line uttered by their characters.

All in all if taken on its own distinct merits, I definitely feel that this particular take on The Lion King is an entertaining in doses albeit highly flawed cinematic experience. At the same time however, I also feel that this film also serves a dual purpose as a test of sorts. By that I mean this is a film that based on the nostalgia and the love for the original is one that people will definitely go see in droves, but which also exists to see if an audience will respond positively to the new technology that helped to make it. Thus having seen what will work with this technology and also what definitely does not and will not even in a million years, I hope that this will encourage filmmakers to utilize this technology in more grandiose, next level, but also unique and distinct narratives in the near future. However until someone really tinkers with it, and gets it down as close to perfect as possible, this current technology will always be seen as no more and no less than a intriguing little side test in the history of filmmaking. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Lion King “2019” a 3 out of 5.