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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.