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Can You Feel the CGI Tonight

Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen
Walt Disney Studios
 118 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed ByJon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen
The Lion King

Few studios will ever, either in live-action or animation, match the success that Disney’s animation division had from 1989 to 1994 as they cranked out, in rapid succession, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These films combined fantastic traditional animation, good stories based on literary classics, great scores, memorable songs, and tremendous vocal talent. Not even Disney itself could continue at that high level, as their features throughout the rest of the decade suffered a slow, steady decline in both quality and box office. So, it’s no wonder that the Mouse House would want to include them in its ongoing campaign to reimagine and re-release new versions of seemingly every film in its library. These remakes would seem to be foolproof as long as the studio could, and did, stay close to the original templates. But now, with the remake of perhaps the best of Disney’s animated films of the era, The Lion King, the studio has stumbled.


Since the most critically acclaimed and successful Disney films have been animated, the studio’s goal of producing “live-action” versions of them is understandable. At times, the definition of live-action gets stretched a bit, most notably in the 2016 version of The Jungle Book, in which young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli interacted with CGI panthers, tigers, and bears voiced by some very well-known actors. But the original version of The Lion King had no human actors whatsoever, meaning that, instead of seeing actual photography of real people or animals in the remake, audiences watch two hours of very realistic CGI-animation instead. And that’s a mistake.


Plotwise, the new Lion King is pretty much the same as the original, both versions borrowing heavily from a quality source, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, the only holdover cast member from the original film) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) rule over the Pride Lands, a vast savannah where all sorts of animals live in a kind of peaceful co-existence (the fact that the real world lions eat many of the other denizens of the Pride Lands is glossed over in both versions of The Lion King). As Mufasa and Sarabi celebrate the birth of their son and heir Simba, Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is jealous that he won’t get his chance for power. So, Scar concocts a scheme to get rid of Mufasa, who falls to his death, trying to protect Simba. Later, Scar convinces the Simba that the cub was actually the one responsible for Mufasa’s death.


A distraught Simba leaves the Pride Lands and, in doing so, barely escapes Scar’s attempt to kill him. Scar, aided by his new allies, the hyenas, then asserts his domination over the pride. Out in the desert surrounding the Pride Lands (see clip below), Simba falls in with a lazy meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner) and an even lazier warthog, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and grows to adulthood in exile. The adult Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) is content to live out his days in his new fertile valley home with Timon and Pumbaa. However, his old friend Nala (Beyonce) finds him and persuades him to return home to reclaim his throne from Scar, who has by now decimated the Pride Lands.


The 1994 version of The Lion King was a beautifully drawn cartoon. The various animals moved in ways that actual animals never could, moved their lips flawlessly to “speak” perfect English, and displayed the full array of human emotions that good animated films have featured since Walt Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” days. No one quibbled or objected that real animals don’t behave in this manner for the simple reason that they didn’t look like real animals. But the visuals are vastly different in the current movie. Director Jon Favreau (who also directed the 2016 Jungle Book) and the team of animators painstakingly reduced actual footage of lions, warthogs, and meerkats to digital data and then created shockingly realistic CGI-animations. The new animated lions look, move, and, for the most part, behave like real lions.


This level of realism would have been fine if Disney were remaking one of its nature documentaries. But The Lion King is a scripted film with a plot that requires the lions to act in a particular non-leonine manner over and over again. Even worse, the movie requires the lions and other animals to “speak” and also “sing” by moving their lips to match the dialogue. By so doing, director Favreau destroys the illusion he is trying to create. Moreover, even in the scenes in which the animals don’t talk, the heightened realism calls attention to the fact that animals don’t behave in a human manner like these creatures do. Audiences can accept a brightly animated Simba yukking it up with Timon and Pumbaa; those watching the new version will probably wonder why Timon doesn’t become Simba’s breakfast.


There is one scene in the new movie that actually works. This occurs when Nala meets Simba, and the two frolic in the meadow while the soundtrack plays Donald Glover and Beyonce singing the Oscar-winning song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” The song and singers are just as good today as they were 25 years ago. But in this scene, the audience gets to see lions behaving like actual lions act instead of attempting to move their lips to match the lyrics. I doubt that anyone in the audience was upset at being spared a closeup of two lions artificially moving their mouths in unison.


“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” isn’t the only song ported over from the original film. The soundtrack includes pretty much everything from the original and a witty addition of an appropriate ringer, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Also ported over from the original are the inimitable vocals of James Earl Jones, while the new cast members also acquit themselves well, especially Seth Rogen, who seemingly was born to play Pumbaa. And, the one area where the realistic animation is an improvement on the brightly-colored work of 1994 is in the depiction of the animals fighting. The fight sequences go on longer, much like the duel at the end of Hamlet, underscoring the finality of the violence (within the bounds of a PG rating).


Watching the new version of The Lion King is like watching a high school class production of The Sound of Music. The audience feels like a lot has been lost in the translation. But there is so much goodwill associated with the production and so much quality in the elements that remain that the overall experience is still enjoyable. This movie is not a king by any means, but it is still princely in its own way.

In this clip, Timon and Pumbaa first meet the young Simba.

Read other reviews of The Lion King: 

The Lion King (2019) on IMDb