Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Lion King 2019 is the Stuffed Dog We Never Wanted

I am not opposed to the recent Disney trend of live-action re-imaginings of animated films, at least not in theory. There are many old Disney movies that can be and have been improved upon, such as Cinderella, Pete's Dragon, and The Jungle Book. The originals of the aforementioned films are rather mediocre, and so rejuvenating them through new technology and better storytelling was not only enjoyable but also laudable. [Other animated Disney movies that should be remade that would be amazing: Atlantis. Please!]

However, it's much more difficult when you start remaking original Disney films that were smashing successes, such as the 1991 Beauty and the Beast, which was nominated for Best Picture that year, or the 1992 Aladdin, which was the highest grossing film of all time until …

The Lion King.

I loved The Lion King. I still love The Lion King -- the original. And so, I wasn't happy when I found out that one of my top three favorite movies was next in line for the Disney live-action makeover treatment.

That being said, I admit to being pleasantly surprised by Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast (2017) remake, which added dimension to some of the characters who felt flat in the original: specifically, the Beast, LeFou, Maurice, and Gaston. We came to know the Beast’s personality and backstory little more, LeFou wasn’t pure slapstick and Maurice was more than a bumbling idiot, and Gaston was truly malevolent. The new songs were well written, and the animation was gorgeous. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but it filled out some of the missing pieces of the original and I have found I still enjoy it after several viewings.

However, The Lion King is a greater movie than Beauty and the Beast. The music is amazing. The animation is breathtaking, both the landscapes and the poignant expressiveness of the animated characters.  The storytelling is tight -- you can almost conduct the dialogue, the music, and the cinematography as it flows seamlessly from the savannah to the jungle to the perilous gorge. The emotional journey cuts right to the quick of the need for the individual to nobly shoulder their responsibilities in spite of wickedness and tragedy, in contrast to the bitter resentment of Scar and the hyenas, or the nihilistic "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle of Pumba and Timon which, while catchy, leads to boredom, emptiness, and despair.

In short, it would be extremely difficult to find things in the original that could be improved upon, unless the film chose to go in a different direction that did NOT include a shot-for-shot, line-for-line homage to the original. However, Disney chose to do the latter.

The live-action Lion King taught me three things about the original film:

1. Realism in this case meant sacrificing the emotional impact. The anthropomorphic expressivity of the animated characters is a significant component to the emotional drive of the original story: Baby Simba’s adorable pouting, his large yellow eyes welling up with tears, Scar’s menacing sneer, Mufasa’s noble brows, Rafiki’s maniacal jests – all of these are lost to realism. As I was watching the live-action version this past weekend, many of the lines which were supposed to pack a punch felt flat because of the lack of emotion in the “live-action” characters’ facial expressions.

The Lion King, 2019.

2. Timing is everything. A friend of mine and a fellow musician once told me that a good movie should feel like you are conducting an orchestra. There are natural cadences, moments were the action and the music surge forward and then pull back.
This is harder to describe in words, but as a musician I felt as though the timing felt off for many of the lines and even the pacing of some of the scenes. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been as noticeable if we weren’t comparing it to the original film even if only in our subconscious. But here we find ourselves.

The Lion King, 1994.

3. The live-action film adaptation had to narrow its scope, especially during the musical numbers. Delightful sequences from “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” lose some their charm as the vivid background patterns (inspired by African color palates and designs) are omitted because of the naturalistic look. Similarly, time lapse sequences from “Hakuna Matata” where the characters meander through the jungle, jumping into lagoons and sauntering across giant water falls in the moonlight are reduced to three realistic animals trotting through the jungle and singing, which is acceptable but nowhere near as imaginative or exciting.

Very often in new technological advances, there is something that must be sacrificed for the sake of these new developments. One good artistic example of this can be found in the development of violin strings. Originally made entirely of sheep/lamb gut (termed “catgut”), gradually metal and gut were combined, and then gut was supplanted by metal altogether in the early 20th century. While metal strings were more durable and produced a louder sound, they cannot achieve the same colors and tonal qualities of gut strings, making the latter more desirable to students and performers of earlier styles of music such as J.S. Bach. Similarly, the realism of the new adaptation of The Lion King sacrifices the emotional journey and the imaginative scope of the original for realism.

During my freshman year of college, my English Professor told us a story about a parent who, upon the death of the family dog, had the animal stuffed by a taxidermist to comfort his distraught child. Naturally, the experiment was rejected because certain things cannot be manufactured in a lab or a studio: relationship, love, nostalgia. Similarly, Disney’s live-action Lion King is the stuffed version of your pet dog that you never wanted in the first place. The movie may be interesting for the first fifteen minutes, but the viewer quickly realizes that the heart is missing and becomes bored.

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