Friday, July 19, 2019

Circle of Strife: THE LION KING

Let me take the optimistic long view: Jon Favreau’s The Lion King should rightly be, years if not months hence, a forgotten curio lost in the sands of time. The latest, and easily the least, of Disney’s current remake cycle, it makes most depressingly literal the fact they’ve traded these mega-budget behemoths for the out-of-the-vault theatrical rereleases of yore. The filmmakers hired, excellent craftspeople, have been tasked with merely transcribing the 1994 original — beat for beat, often note for note, sometimes shot for shot — re-animating the pseudo-Shakespearean jungle conflict between an exiled lion cub prince and his murderous uncle in a computer-generated photoreal style that removes its charms, its imagination, its warmth, and its power. I feel a great pity for children who see this before (or, heaven forbid, instead) of the original, for they have been robbed of a genuine experience with a work of real creativity and energy. Instead, they will have seen a dreary, and worthlessly pedestrian remake that mistakes realism for visual interest, and brings only dirt-brown recreation where once was color and life and style. That Disney would plunder its classics for profit is one thing; some of these remakes have been good, and even the ones that aren’t have been interesting attempts. Here, though, they’ve heisted the magic entirely out of one of their greatest accomplishments, leaving only a deadening emptiness behind. Even when, from time to time, I didn’t mind sitting in the theater with it, I found myself wishing to go home and watch the real one.

Misconceived from frame one, the filmmakers are putting great effort after an unwinnable position. To the extent that it nonetheless finds sequences that work, it’s because they’ve taken them wholesale from the original — timing, composition, score, line readings. (Its best images, too, are copied directly — a cub’s little paw in his father’s literal footstep; clouds parting with ghostly splendor, a cleansing rain to wash away the prideland’s scars.) Yet there they feel fossilized, overdetermined, programmatic, lifeless, overfamiliar. When it strays from the original it’s somehow worse: replacing buoyancy with leadenness, caricature with zoology, a sparkle of life in clean hand-drawn lines with CG taxidermy. The lion’s share of the problem comes down to the inexpressiveness of the realistic creatures, which should have given rise to a Kuleshov effect-led reimagining of the visual language, but instead, leaning on the first film’s editing as storyboards for this one, it deadens every reaction shot. Try as they might to avoid the uncanny valley, hewing close to a Disney Nature style deemphasizing mushy mumbling animal mouths whenever possible, it makes the occasional cartoonier quips, references, and flatulence stick out uncomfortably, and gives all emoting over to the Pavlovian effect the songs and lines will spark in those of us familiar with the original. So much effort has gone to produce so little. Even the perfect casting (Donald Glover! Chiwetel Ejiofor! BeyoncĂ©! Alfre Woodard! Seth Rogen! Billy Eichner! James Earl Jones again!) goes to waste in this flavorless, passionless, redo that constrains their personalities. The sooner forgotten the better, unless someone wants to go all the way back and get this excellent ensemble to work on Hamlet itself. Now that’s a reimagining I’d like to see.

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