Skip to main content

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King
(2019)

(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

I’m hazarding you know the premise and subsequent plot, so I’m not going to labour it (not that I tend to go in for recaps generally). I could only recall the bare outline (and a smattering of songs), so the changes didn’t really matter very much to me – aside from being fairly certain the original picture didn’t run two hours, and that it didn’t feel like it was taking a half hour more than that to finish its business – as opposed to those who’ve seen it tens of times. I was more curious regarding the areas director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson elected not to change, given the manner in which Aladdin successful seized the opportunity.

It’s particularly notable that, while prides are matriarchal, Disney didn’t have the gumption to turn this into The Lion Queen (too much of a balance to redress); they’re quite willing to show their “wokeness” in glib broad strokes, identifying Nala as a superior fighter to Simba – because that kind of comic book/action movie rationale more often than not amounts to gender progressiveness in cinema – and have the courage to seek help for her oppressed pride… But when she reunites with Simba, her entire argument is that he needs to come back to lead them (the oppressed female lions). Which makes for a picture good and faithful to the title, and Nala a good and faithful future wife who knows her place (Entertainment Weekly, in thrall to Disney’s empty appropriation of progressiveness exclaimed “The female lions are more proactive this time around!” Yeah, within strict limits that reinforce patriarchal definitions, but hey knock yourselves out).

So too, while the original’s mandrill has long been cited for indulging the Magical Negro trope, Favreau’s remake carries that over intact with John Kani voicing Rafiki, the only expressly African sounding character, cloaked in tribal ritual, who also just happens to be the only monkey in the cast. One assumes Disney and Favreau thought they were dutifully addressing imbalances in the original sufficiently through their advocating black representation in the cast, but they’ve still otherwise assembled a group of British or American performers who sound precisely that.

On a thematic level, I was also slightly at odds with the suggestion by the animal enclave Simba joins that all life is sacredly anthropomorphic… except for grubs and bugs which can be devoured with impunity (“Slimy yet satisfying”). Sister animation house Pixar might have a thing or two to say about that. Or even just the dragonfly in The Rescuers.

As lacklustre as Nathanson’s attempts to bring the material up to date are, his characterisation of the protagonists is equally sloppy. Not that the performances of either the younger (JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph) or older (Donald Glover – especially anodyne and disappointing – and Beyoncé) Simba and Nala do anything to ameliorate this. Seriously, the Lion King in waiting’s progress to claiming his destiny is a complete snooze, and his vocalisation, from typically wholesome Disney cartoon pup to bland adult is entirely uninvolving.

The casting choices are a mixed bag generally. Returning James Earl Jones’ regal tones as Mufasa suit the photorealist imagery and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s less extravagant reinterpretation of Scar is also a winner (it likely helped that he had a visual guide with actual definition, Scar being the only lion with discernible individuality or character). I’m not remotely a fan of John Oliver, so “adapting” his grating Last Week Tonight monotone, as a replacement for Rowan Atkinson’s distinctive sarcasm, is a complete bust.

Then there’s Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon, the former perfectly cast as a farting warthog; if he’d wooed Charlize Theron in this guise in Long Shot, audiences might actually have gone with the outrageously fantastical conceit of it all. Much as I don’t tend to rate Rogen’s particular brand of endearingly stoned slobbishness, he and Eichner are good value. And when they’re allowed to riff, the movie actually manifests some energy and verve (in particular, after rattling through Hakuna Matata, by which point Simba has transformed into an adult, Timon notes how he has “grown 400 pounds since we started”).

As to the much-discussed uncanny leonine valley of Favreau’s nature doc animal renditions… Well, it made a certain amount of sense in The Jungle Book, where they interacted with an actual live-action character. Here, we just keep coming back to the question, but to what end? Aside from an easy billion in box office takings, obviously.

In truth, I had very little problem with the incongruity of these realistic birds and beasts talking, and some of them – aforementioned Scar, Pumbaa and the sinister hyenas – even work rather well. Notably, however, it’s no coincidence that they’re are all allowed more quirkiness, edge or flair, within strict boundaries. One also got the impression, as with the trailers, that Favreau was averse to spending too long on the animals (mostly lions) speaking without cutting away, suggesting a lack of confidence (or editing room second guessing once responses to the trailers came in).

Favreau’s work here is as utterly efficient and journeyman as it gets, standing him in good stead with the Mouse House for the foreseeable. Me, I much prefer his onscreen personality to his behind the camera lack thereof. There are areas here where he entirely drops the ball – casting Oliver, the terrible, cheesy slow-motion death of Mufasa and corresponding zoom out from little Simba’s reaction (so bad, it’s repeated during the climax, just to rub it in), shot for shot sourced from the original where it worksby virtue of the animated form. Others where, allowed to have a bit of fun, such as with The Lion Sleeps Tonight, you get a glimpse of a less artlessly well-oiled production.

Again then, The Lion King isn’t bad, but it is redundantly bland, and had me shifting restlessly in my seat for much of the last half; the last time that happened was Godzilla: King of Monsters (which is bad). However, it doesn’t look as if its mediocrity is going to adversely impact its box office, any more than a similarly spineless makeover did for Beauty and the Beast. Nostalgia can overcome a multitude of insincerities.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi