Disney is on a mission to remake their most successful animated movies in "live action" versions. For movies based on humans, this means using actors in the roles. For animal stories, this means "photorealistic CGI," as in The Jungle Book and the remake of The Lion King. And in the quest for realism, something got lost. While many reviewers give the film a high score, much of that is due to the voice cast and the impressive technology. Others saw a problem. The New York Times said, "There is a lot of professionalism but not much heart." Indiewire calls it "little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate". The A.V. Club said, "We’re watching a hollow bastardization of a blockbuster, at once completely reliant on the audience’s pre-established affection for its predecessor and strangely determined to jettison much of what made it special." In another post comparing movie graphics to the evolution of video games, the A.V. Club describes exactly what went wrong.
For a generation of children, the sight of lion prince Simba watching his father, Mufasa, die in a wildebeest stampede in 1994’s The Lion King represented a first encounter with mortality. Disney’s animators render the moment with a terrible poignancy that can stay with a person for the rest of their life. Mufasa first falls down toward the “camera,” a reverse shot from above accompanies his final roar, and then we rapidly zoom out from the pupil of Simba’s eye to reveal his horrified face. His mouth hangs agape, his eyebrows pull back in shock, and his yellow-orange eyes widen to make him look like the frightened little boy he is.
The Mouse House’s new Lion King remake employs photorealistic computer animation to replicate this moment almost exactly. Except that when we get that glimpse of Simba’s reaction, there’s no helplessness, no lost innocence, no fear. There is just the face of a lion, making the only face lions make, albeit with his jaw lowered. One thinks of the words of Werner Herzog, who described looking into the eyes of a chicken and seeing nothing but “a real stupidity, a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity.” Having said all that, you’ve got to hand it to Disney: It sure does look like a real lion.
Even the worst reviews of the new Lion King admit that it will be a big hit for Disney, due to the talented voice cast and the fact that everyone knows and loves the original so well. The 2019 version of The Lion King is an excuse for people to go experience the story again, and their memories may fill in what is lacking in the photorealistic CGI. The Lion King opens nationwide this weekend.