Saturday, 31 August 2019

Film Review No. 50 The Lion King (PG)

Strong Points:
The photorealistic graphics are incredible
Some new jokes and altered lines work well...
A huge technical achievement
The songs and story still contain the magic
Timon and Pumbaa lift the film up to new heights, with their animal friends
Singing was great from all
Subverted expectations
Little extra scenes filling in the transitions were great and didn't slow the pace down

Weak Points:
...Although some lines were oddly removed
Some of the new song additions don't really live up to the originals
Animals aren't anthropomorphised, so there isn't much emotion around the eyes
Photorealism removed the ability of animation to have clever, non-realistic ways to show a shot

Some minor spoilers ahead:

In-depth Review:
The story of The Lion King is as affecting today as it was back in 1994 (for other people anyway, I was still a non-human collection of atoms). An epic of Shakespearean proportions, with Disney's wit and family-friendly nature making sure the pace is light and funny throughout. Musical numbers to hum along to until the black holes of time stop all music, characters who are surprisingly relatable given that they mostly walk on all fours and an animation style which was able to make some of the most stunning vistas seen in a Disney film. This last one is what's changed with The Lion King (2019), with new photorealistic animation appearing to trick the brain and break records.

The visual effects in this film are so incredibly realistic, my brain had a hard time comprehending them. I think the idea that I thought the film should be put up for live-action categories at awards when really, it's entirely comprised of animation (besides one-shot, supposedly), goes to show how far CGI has come. Sunlight dapples over puddles, sand is swept across sprawling deserts and each animal has been given their proper weight and physics (so much so that some sections of the film had to be changed to keep the realistic feel). The film looks like a nature documentary and is at it's best when taking a wide shot or aerial shot and allowing you to be a fly on a non-existent wall. The problems start when the animals start talking. Now, the animation is sophisticated enough to not fall into the problems of other animal-talking films such as Babe or Big Barn Farm (for that small subset of British readers). The mouths moving do look realistic to the animals and don't look plastered on at all. But this is almost the problem.

You see, Favreau and the rest of the team have strived for realism so much that they've removed any anthropomorphization from the animals. Only emotions which are found physically on the animals in real life are shown (which makes anger the easiest emotion to show), with the rest of the human emotional range given to the voice actors to try and create. Boiled down to the pure basics? The eyes aren't alive in the animals. We can't see their motivations or thoughts laid out in front of us, any double entendres are heard but not seen. I knew what each animal was trying to communicate as I've watched the original film and my mind was able to fill in the gaps which the film tried so hard to fill. But still, it left me slightly disconnected to the whole affair.

The voice acting was a mixed bag as well. It felt like half of the actors were chosen for their voice acting capabilities and half for their singing capabilities. That's not to say that any of them were particularly bad on their weaker sides, but there was enough of a difference to be heard and recognised during the viewing of the film. There was also just not as much of a connection between the cast as previous Disney animated films have had. This might be due to the animation style emphasizing anything which seemed 'off', but if films like Tangled can have a greater connection when the voice actors never actually met besides when they sang their duet, then this film should be able to do better.

You might think the problem could be that the original voices are so ingrained in the public consciousness that anything else would seem unnatural but that's not the case, as sadly James Earl Jones was one of the most 'off' voices in the film (which it pains me to say). He still has his great, commanding voice and any time power was called for, you could count on him. For the quieter, more comedic moments, however, he came off as quite stilted, as if he wasn't in tune with the rest of the voice actors. Maybe he still had muscle memory with how he and the old voice-actors said the lines, but in any case, I was slightly disappointed.

Other characters and actors excelled in the comedy, however, and none more so than Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba respectively. They breathed new life into old lines and helped to bring a nice, self-aware edge to a film which was in danger of becoming a corporate series of events. The comedy changes and joke additions were mostly appreciated as well, building upon the previous film and serving as nice Easter Eggs for old Lion King fans. A special shout-out to John Oliver as well, for not being afraid to change Zazu from the original Atkinson persona - after a small adjustment period, I started to enjoy his take on it as much as Atkinson's original.

Some of the changes were less appreciated, however, or just plain confusing. For example, why get rid of the classic line 'we've got to go home' from Mufasa's death scene? Realism reasons? That's how they explained the change in animation for Mufasa's death itself, with Scar now pushing Mufasa, rather than letting him go. I appreciate that the new animation style needs changes to the film and Disney couldn't hope to know what parts of the film resonated with all audience members, but still, some of their changes seem odd.

The music in The Lion King is still as great as ever. Hans Zimmer's score opens the film in an incredible cacophony of instruments, and Elton John's songs evoke nostalgia, humour and questionable life mottos throughout. The additional songs by Beyoncé and Elton John are good too, although not quite as memorable as the original. Shame the extra songs from the Broadway show and sequels only made it on the album though, as there were a good 30 minutes extra film to fill. Also, why was Be Prepared cut down?! Ejiofor can sing!

Conclusion: The Lion King is a technical achievement, there's no doubting that. Disney is, once again, at the forefront of innovation when it comes to animation, no-ones arguing. The question, however, is just because they can, should they? Because while I highly enjoyed The Lion King (especially the breezier second half), the feeling I came away with was a nostalgia of a different kind to what Disney probably wanted. I was nostalgic for old Disney, who tried new material, creating magic from stories about mice and men alike. I still got chills at the opening scene though

Rating: 74%

Thanks for reading, Satamer.

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