It’s a bold move when one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, is re-envisioned as an entirely CGI based 'live-action' film. The Lion King (1994) is a marvel of Shakespearean heights, and so of all of the Disney live-action remakes, this one inspired the loudest outcry. For how could a pitch-perfect animation, solely about animals, benefit from a photoreal CGI remake?
Once the opening sequence of 'Circle of Life' begins and the same voice of Lebo M is heard, the heart flutters with delight and falls in love all over again. The plot is the same as before: desperate for the throne, a jealous brother of the king kills him and exiles his nephew, the rightful heir. The characters are also principally the same, but we now have an average set of new voice-actors who can’t compete with the deliciously effervescent ones who came before. Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles play the sweet lovers Simba and Nala, respectively. Seth Rogan as Pumbaa and Billy Eichner as Timon, Simba’s friends, provide much-needed, scene-stealing comic relief. Chiwetel Eijiofor as Scar is surprisingly menacing and John Oliver is decent as the king’s majordomo. Reprising the role of Mufasa, the incomparable James Earl Jones' rich, soul stirring tones once again provide the heart and spiritual depth to the film.
Without fail, the visuals of the film are stunning. At moments, so spellbinding is the photoreal CGI, that one feels present in the savannah. Reaching the heights of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), in its ability to transfix and transport the audience into the world on the screen. Yet, for the most part, it feels like we’re watching a version of the original film, but with different eyes, for very little has been modified in terms of scene by scene action. Unsurprisingly, director Jon Favreau returned for this Disney live-action due to his success with The Jungle Book (2016), where he skilfully honed similar techniques of photorealism. And therein lies the purpose of the film, a showcasing of these graphics - beyond that it’s déjà vu, just not the perfection we remember.
Ironically, it is this same visual quality that renders some of the biggest problems. The CGI animals are painstakingly accurate, therefore speech and facial expressions are somewhat jarring. In the original version, facial expressions are not only essential in conveying emotion and creating an understanding with the audience, but noticeably lend to the humour of the script. This version lacks visual comedy, and so loses some of its charm. Animated reality reigns supreme with its creative freedom, where we can believe that a lion cub befriends a meerkat and warthog, and that they can belt out a tune or two. Here, the documentary-like photorealism is too stark to allow our imaginations to suspend reality and believe in the same scenario. For all its visual splendour, at times photorealism is restrictive and unconvincing.
However, the crown jewel of soundtracks is mercifully left intact for the most part, though with a fresh modern edge to some of the classics like 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight', which benefit from the input of producer Pharrell Williams. Hans Zimmer's scintillating score is back with a vengeance. Disappointingly, headlining superstar Beyoncé adds little to the character of Nala or the music of the film. Even her new track 'Spirit' is forgettable. Where a more realistic visual approach is adopted, focus must be on the score rather than the songs. In fact most of the songs have been shortened, but some should have been cut altogether as they are ill-suited to their new environs. Disney may have to decide whether to keep up with cutting-edge technology, or hold on to the musical history that made the studio the leader in its field. With Mulan due out soon, reportedly sans songs, the matter may have already been settled.
Disney’s incredibly lucrative live-action vanity project, has taken less of a risk here as this beloved classic has always delivered results (only in 2011 was a digitally-enhanced 3D version of the original successfully released into cinemas). Nonetheless, the creators do enough to imbue it with fresh breath, whilst amply paying due homage to the original. The film is not without problems, however it would take a sledgehammer approach to eviscerate a narrative so profound and beautifully-constructed. Fortunately, the action and script are left largely untouched, and in doing so, by a whisker, Disney manages to evade committing cinematic sacrilege, to our great and collective relief.