The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

The Eleventy-First Monthly Review of July 2019

I’ve been writing 100 Films for 151 months now, but I only instituted these monthly progress reports in May 2010 — and that makes this the 111th one! I think that’s worthy of a Hobbity celebration…

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Coincidentally, it’s also the 50th month of these “new look” monthly updates (the ones with the funny titles and all the formal sections), which means it’s also the 50th iteration of my Arbie Awards. You can see how I’ve honoured that special occasion when you reach the relevant section.

But before that, there’s this…


#99 Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken
#100 The Killer (1989), aka Dip huet seung hung
#101 Toy Story 4 (2019)
#102 Sherlock Jr. (1924)
#103 The Lion King (2019)
The Killer
.


  • So, I watched just five feature films in July.
  • That continues my new fewer-than-10-films-per-month streak. Once upon a time such numbers were my norm (from 2008-2013, 58% of months had 9 or fewer films), but for the past few years it, er, really wasn’t (in 2014-2018, 95% of months had 10 or more films).
  • My longest previous fewer-than-ten streak was 7 months, from June to December 2011. If 2019 continues the way it’s going, it could replicate that exactly. But, equally, a lot can change: at the end of July 2016 I was at #127 and went on to finish the year with 195, and in July 2017 I was at #107 and ended on 174; but July 2015 was lower than both of those, ending at #102, and I went on to reach 200. So while I’ll be very surprised if 2019 even comes close to last year’s 261, never say never.
  • In terms of averages, it’s distinctly less heartening. It takes the average for July down from 9.9 to 9.5, leaving it as the only month with an average lower than 10. It also brings the 2019-to-date average down from 16.3 to 14.7, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 17.8 to 15.9.
  • Of of the five films I did watch, one was #100 — later than I’d anticipated, because my underwhelming June tally didn’t get me there, but still the 3rd earliest #100 ever (behind 2018 (10th May) and 2016 (28th May), and ahead of 2017 (15th July)).
  • It was a double catch-up for last month, too: I missed my should-be-monthly Blindspot film in June, so made a selection from that list to be 2019’s illustrious #100. My pick was John Woo’s career-defining heroic bloodshot classic The Killer. Still holds up today, for my money. It’d be nice if we could get a quality Blu-ray release of it, though.
  • And this month’s WDYMYHS film was Buster Keaton’s slapstick classic Sherlock Jr. At 45 minutes, it’s just long enough to qualify as a feature rather than a short. As well as the comedy, it has madcap stunts Tom Cruise would be proud of, and technical effects that still hold up almost 100 years later.
  • Finally, from last month’s “failures” I watched only Toy Story 4. Well, one is better than none…



The 50th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

It’s the 50th Arbie Awards! In honour of that milestone, I’m… not doing anything special whatsoever. So let’s get on with this:

Favourite Film of the Month
Not much to choose from, though I did really enjoy almost all of the limited selection of films I did watch. The winner, though, is an action movie… and also a comedy: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which (as I said above) is not only very funny but also technically audacious and full of daredevil stunts.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is an easy pick. I didn’t hate it, but I was certainly left underwhelmed by Jon Favreau’s too-faithful live-action animated remake of animation The Lion King.

Song That Should’ve Been Retitled of the Month
Can You Feel the Love Tonight This Afternoon?

Joke I Stole from Letterboxd of the Month
See above + here.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It was a relatively meagre month for new posts. Well, in fact, there were 10, and my average for the first six months of 2019 was 13, so maybe not so relatively low after all. Whatever, none of those new posts challenged archival ones for popularity: this month’s victor may’ve been a Netflix new release (outside the US) but it only came 39th overall. Perhaps Shaft isn’t the man after all.



I didn’t rewatch a single film last month, which means I’ve got a mountain to climb to get to my goal of 50 rewatches this year — and July is barely helping…

#21 Die Another Day (2002)

To stay on target I should be on about #28 by this point. Oh dear. And the one I did watch was a fluke: I happened across it on TV the other day and ended up sucked in. So, okay, I didn’t really watch it — certainly not all of it — but I did see a fair bit of it; probably a comparable amount to when I caught Skyfall on TV last year, and I counted that, so here it is. I’m still intending to re-watch all of Bond properly at some point (or at least pick up where I left off, which was with OHMSS); but then I’ve been meaning to do that ever since the Bond 50 Blu-ray set came out in 2012…


I made a couple of trips to the cinema this month, but I still missed some big titles — primarily, Spider-Man: Far from Home. There was also Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle/Beatles comedy Yesterday (which actually came out in June, but I didn’t mention it last month), and smaller releases (which therefore weren’t necessarily playing near me or at accessible times) like Midsommar and The Dead Don’t Die. (If you’re a US-based reader wondering why I haven’t mentioned Quentin Tarantino’s successful new film, it’s not out here for another two weeks.)

Last month I noted that some cinema misses from February had now made it to disc, where I’d missed them again. That’s also true this month, with the release of Alita: Battle Angel. The same was true of Dumbo, though that was from my April failures — the fact it and Alita have now reached disc at about the same time shows something about the vagaries of release windows, I guess. Finally on disc, a rewatch candidate: Captain Marvel (not that I’ve posted a review from when I saw it in the cinema yet).

The noisiest releases on streaming this month were TV series, but a couple of Amazon co-productions came to Prime Video: Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and Beautiful Boy, with a BAFTA-nominated performance from Timothée Chalamet. As for Netflix, they offered doc The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is the kind of thing that’s destined to sit on my watch list for ever and a day. They also threw up some stuff I missed from last year in the form of Paul Feig’s black-comedy mystery A Simple Favour and acclaimed comedy-drama Blindspotting.


So, in conclusion, July’s prospects were marred by my being away on holiday for almost half the month. Perhaps that means August will see things perk up again…

The Lion King (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #52

The greatest adventure of all is
finding our place in the circle of life.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 88 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 15th June 1994
UK Release: 7th October 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.1995

Stars
Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Election)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian)
Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Die Hard with a Vengeance)
Rowan Atkinson (Bean, Johnny English)

Directors
Roger Allers (Open Season, The Prophet)
Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, Mr. Peabody & Sherman)

Screenwriters
Irene Mecchi (Brave, Strange Magic)
Jonathan Roberts (James and the Giant Peach, Jack Frost)
Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Alice Through the Looking Glass)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson, Barry Johnson, Lorna Cook, Thom Enriquez, Andy Gaskill, Gary Trousdale, Jim Capobianco, Kevin Harkey, Jorgen Klubien, Chris Sanders, Tom Sito, Larry Leker, Joe Ranft, Rick Maki, Ed Gombert, Francis Glebas & Mark Kausler; with additional story by J.T. Allen, George Scribner, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Jenny Tripp, Bob Tzudiker, Chris Vogler, Kirk Wise & Noni White; and the story supervisor was Brenda Chapman.

Sort of based on
Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare.

Songs by
Elton John (The Muse, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Aladdin)

The Story
The savannahs of Africa are ruled by the lion Mufasa, a kindly king who is struggling to instil some sense of life’s importance in his reckless young son and heir, Simba. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar, lusts for power, and manipulates Mufasa and Simba to gain it…

Our Hero
Lion cub Simba is heir to his father’s throne as ruler of the Pride Lands, and a naughty, unruly prince who just can’t wait to be king. All that changes when he winds up outcast, and has to learn to grow up before returning to save his kingdom.

Our Villain
King Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar, who also just can’t wait to be king. Obviously that’s not going to happen under the regular rules of succession, but Scar is a cunning and conniving sort. Well, he is the villain.

Best Supporting Characters
After running away, Simba falls in with meerkat Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Ernie Sabella), who have a laid-back attitude to life, and raise the lion cub to have the same. So successful they had their own spin-off series and were the stars of a sequel, too.

Memorable Quote
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great circle of life.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Hakuna matata” — a wonderful phrase, it means no worries for the rest of your days.

Memorable Scene
The opening sequence, in which all the animals gather to celebrate the birth of Simba, scored to Circle of Life, is a majestic sequence — so impressive, in fact, that Disney used it, uncut and unadorned, as the film’s trailer.

Best Song
Big romantic number Can You Feel the Love Tonight won the Oscar, and there were nominations for epic opener Circle of Life and quotable comedy hit Hakuna Matata, and you shouldn’t overlook the fun and impressive choreography of I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, but for me the best number is Scar’s Be Prepared. I do love a good villain’s song.

Technical Wizardry
The Lion King continues Disney’s integration of CGI into their animated features, this time using it to create the pivotal wildebeest stampede. A new program had to be written for the sequence, which allowed hundreds of computer generated animals to run without colliding into each other. It took the CG department three years to animate the scene.

Making of
Voice actor Frank Welker (who has over 760 credits to his name on IMDb, including originating Fred in Scooby-Doo and voicing Megatron in the Transformers animated series) provided all of the film’s lion roars. No recordings of actual lions were used.

Next time…
As one of the biggest successes of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King has naturally had more than its share of follow-ups. The headline has to be the stage musical adaptation of the film, which opened in 1997. It’s the third longest-running show in Broadway history, and is “the highest-earning entertainment property in history in any medium”. In 1998, direct-to-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride was released. Apparently its plot is influenced by Romeo and Juliet. A second direct-to-DVD sequel, The Lion King 1½ (known as The Lion King 3 in some countries, including the UK), was released in 2004. It’s based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, re-telling the first movie from Timon and Pumbaa’s perspective. I watched it years ago and really enjoyed it, an opinion supported by its strong 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. On television, spin-off series The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa ran for three seasons from 1995, and just last year TV ‘movie’ (it’s only 45 minutes) The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar heralded the start of a new series, The Lion Guard. It’s been renewed for a second season.

Awards
2 Oscars (Song (Can You Feel the Love Tonight), Score)
2 Oscar nominations (Song (both Circle of Life and Hakuna Matata))
2 BAFTA nominations (Music, Sound)
3 Annie Awards (Film, Voice Acting (Jeremy Irons), Individual Achievement for Story Contribution)
3 Annie nominations (Individual Achievement for Artistic Excellence (x3))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Jonathan Taylor Thomas))

What the Critics Said
“Even the inescapable hype cannot diminish the fact that this is one great film. Consider that this movie delivers strong characters, a sophisticated story, good music, captivating visuals and loads of emotion — all within the confines of a G-rated cartoon. […] The most exhilarating part of The Lion King is that it’s not just great animation, but superior filmmaking. Outstanding character animation is a given at Disney, which handles the nuances of movement better than anyone. But the last few animated features show an increasing mastery of cinematography techniques. In The Lion King, the eye of the camera ranges from point of view to overhead to moving with the scene. The opening sequence where the plains animals trek to see the newborn cub and the wildebeest stampede scene are breathtaking.” — Bill Wedo, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Timone and Pumba [sic] are two of the more interesting comic relief characters in Disney films. I’d argue that they’re one of the most wonderful depictions of a same-sex parenting couple that I have ever seen. I don’t want to get drawn into a debate over their sexuality, but the pair are partners in the truest sense of the word, sharing a life. They sleep together, for crying out loud. I don’t care about their sexuality or anything like that, because we’ll never get an answer on that and it’s immaterial. All that matters is that they complete one another, and it’s sweet. […] Even when Simba arrives, it’s very clear that the dynamic is different – Simba isn’t an equal partner in the relationship like Timone and Pumba. They’re a family, but Timone and Pumba are more of a couple.” — Darren Mooney, the m0vie blog

Verdict

My third Disney pick is consecutive to my previous two (Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast) in Disney’s history of animated classics, which goes to show how successful their ’90s Renaissance was. (Also, when my childhood was.) The Lion King succeeds by combining a selection of memorable, hummable songs with an epic tale of royal politicking — but, y’know, in a Disney way. Unafraid to include plot twists that place it alongside Bambi in the company’s canon, but with some well-performed comedy characters to lighten the mood, it manages to be one of Disney’s most entertaining but also most philosophical (in its way) films.

#53 has… my sword, and my bow, and my axe.