In the past few years, Disney's mission to recycle its animated movies with live-action remakes continue its pace. Among the list are Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo, and we'll soon be treated with Niki Caro's Mulan and Rob Marshall's The Little Mermaid, and many more.
Athough consistently profitable and obviously much aesthetically pleasing, The reason for these reboots' existence remains questionable. Did Emma Watson make a better Belle than the its animated version because she was "real"? The question with The Lion King though is not how faithful it is to the animated classic. Rather, it's what we should call an animated movie that eerily mimics reality while featuring no real "live action" whatsoever.
Jon Favreau's remake of 2016's The Jungle Book was part of Disney's "live action" slate, but beyond the figure of Neel Sethi's Mowgli, almost nothing in the film was "live". For the Lion King, which features no real human characters, Favreau has simply taken things to their logical conclusion, creating something that looks absolutely real while remaining absolutely unreal.
The movie unfolds with a variety of bewilderingly lifelike creatures, merrily frolicking through the Circle of Life. The feeling resembles that sense of wonder and sensation I felt after seeing the majestic herds of dinosaurs for the first time in the movie Jurassic Park, and as the familiar story of a young lion struggling to live up to his father's footsteps unfold, I soon found myself applauding the animators. While Aslan in the Chroniles of Narnia movies may have shimmered with an air of digital artificiality, Mufasa and Simba's mane looked so natural you feel you could reach out and stroke it.
As for the movie's landscapes, their apparent tangibility seems perfectly suited to the phrase that echoes throughout The Lion King: 'Everything the light touches'. It's as if Caleb Deschanel(cinematographer), physically ventured into the savanna and bathed in the honeydew glow of an everlasting "magic hour". Equally well evoked are the haunting hues of the expedition to find the elephants' graveyard, and the barren landscapes of the post-Mufasa pride land, 'heavy on the carcass'.
The effects are impressive, with all of the movies settings made with a game engine, then rendered as virtual environments through which a "camera crew' could move, mimicking the angles and imperfections of live-action shooting, lending an apparent human touch to a computer-generated world.
There are problems with this format though. It's one thing to see a cartoon lion sing and dance, but watching realistic recreations of animals speaking and bursting into song is altogether harder to swallow. As ever, the mouth movements are an issue, but the main stumbling block is conceptual rather than technical. Does photorealism serve such an inherently fastastical narrative? On stage, The Lion King became a huge hit because the theatrical techniques used to tell the story required the audience to use their imagination. There's little space left for that kind of experience here, as every detail is filled in, down to the last pixel.
In the voice cast, Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter gives the roles of Simba and Nala their own flavor, while John Oliver takes over from Rowan Atkinson as news-reading hornbill Zazu. Once again, Scar’s inherent wickedness is signalled not only by his lanky gait but by the fact that he’s played by a British actor with impressive Shakespearean credentials – Chiwetel Ejiofor giving Jeremy Irons a run for his money as the evil uncle. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen have fun as Timon and Pumba, respectively, reminding us that Hakuna Matata is basically The Bare Necessities with bells on as they teach Simba to chill out and eat grubs, concluding that life is not a self-sustaining circle but a “meaningless line of indifference”. Meanwhile, original star James Earl Jones retains his title as Most Trusted Voice in the World in the role of Mufasa, delivering words of wisdom about our ancestors looking down from the sky.
While Hans Zimmer doesn't so much rewrite the original songs, he did manage to augment the old favorites. I'm still not sure what's the point of it all, but the moview does offer a vision of a future, a future in which the traditional distinctions between animation and live action have dissolved into nothingness.