HEAT VISION

'The Lion King': What the Critics Are Saying

Do reviewers feel the love tonight?

The prospect of remaking the most successful G-rated movie of all time and, in the process, transforming it from a hand-drawn cartoon into a CGI animation marvel so photorealistic it looks, at times, like a live-action feature, is certainly a bold one. Add in a voice cast that includes Beyonce and Donald Glover, and Disney’s new version of The Lion King feels like a cinematic event. But, with the review embargo lifted, the question on everyone’s lips is a simple one: Do critics feel the love tonight?

The answer is… complicated. While there is certainly praise for performances and an overall positive impression for the level of wizardry required to make the movie look the way it does, it’s fair to say that critics weren’t too impressed with what they saw beyond the technical achievement of it all.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy praised the technology, but yearned to see something new from the plot. “After the initial fascination and moments of enchantment in watching the extraordinarily lifelike animals talking and relating to one another as human beings do, you begin to get used to it to the extent that it's no longer surprising, which in turn allows the familiarity of it all to begin flooding in,” he writes. “Everything here is so safe and tame and carefully calculated as to seem predigested. There's nary a surprise in the whole two hours.”

Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson was equally disappointed by the new movie’s fidelity to the original, writing, “As an expansion of the 1994 film, The Lion King says and adds little. It’s a half-hour longer than the original, but for no discernible reason. Scar has gone from being creepy to some kind of beta incel. Some of the campiness of the original, particularly from the hyenas, is gone, and even a (very) slightly expanded role for Nala still fails to offer anything interesting. The Lion King has always been a film with quite a lot to say bubbling below its surface. But 2019’s telling adds bloat, and nothing more.”

ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer has similar feelings. “Favreau’s The Lion King feels like a bad Xerox of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s; the colors aren’t as sharp, the characters aren’t as crisply performed, and everything feels a little fuzzier and more diffuse,” he argues. “While the traditionally animated Lion King ran a sleek 88 minutes, the update spreads the exact same story across two full, lifeless hours by adding a new song, more dialogue, and one sequence that follows a tuft of Simba’s fur through the wilderness as another illustration of the circle of life. The stiff, muted animal performances are matched by the general look of the film, credited to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, which swaps all the vibrant emerald, ochre, and sapphire of the 2D animated Lion King for a palette of brown, tan, khaki, and additional brown. The new film is a lot less fun to look at than the old one.”

There was, across the majority of reviews, a mixture of awe at the realism on display with the new animation and frustration that it was quite as photorealistic as it ended up being.

“Look, trailblazers pushing the edge of technology are necessary and Favreau’s clearly onto something here and hats off to the guy, especially when you consider his career started in indie comedy; his growth and willingness to learn as a filmmaker over the years has been remarkable,” writes The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez. “But without a marriage of inspired storytelling, straight up regurgitation doesn’t elevate new tech. Also, thinking about could and should, one needs to consider good taste, but that’s clearly not driving any of the decisions here. Animated photorealism is going to have its day in the sun, and will find practical storytelling applications in something that will likely astound audiences down the road, and such is the precarious life of the visionary trying to forge new paths. But this lifeless nostalgic rehash that offers absolutely nothing new, aside from a shiny new leopard print aesthetic to tell the same exact story, just ain’t it.”

“It’s as if every creative decision were subordinate to the film’s misguided insistence on realism, on keeping the mannerisms and movements of these magically intelligent creatures ‘believable,’” writes A.A. Dowd of The AV Club. “And so, all the pleasures are not just secondhand but diminished: We’re watching a hollow bastardization of a blockbuster, at once completely reliant on the audience’s pre-established affection for its predecessor and strangely determined to jettison much of what made it special.”

Perhaps, some argue, the fault is in marrying the photorealism to a story that demands the elasticity of hand-drawn animation. “What’s remarkable is the whole thing looks like a well-done nature documentary,” notes USA Todays Brian Truitt in his review. “The eye-popping visuals Favreau used three years ago for The Jungle Book seem obsolete compared to what he unleashes here. The attention to detail is exquisite, from Timon’s jittery hands and random scratching fits to the water droplets hanging off the whiskers of wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani) during a torrential rainstorm. It only gets strange when those realistic animals start singing, though you’re less weirded out by the time hippos and antelopes are seen crooning ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.'"

New York Times critic A.O. Scott picks up on the idea Truitt approaches above, writing, “The closer the movie gets to nature in its look, the more blatant, intrusive and purposeless its artifice seems. It might have worked better without songs or dialogue: surely the Disney wizards could have figured out how to spin an epic tale of royal succession and self-discovery through purely visual means.”

Perhaps all this worrying is overthinking things, as Screen International’s Tim Grierseon would appear to think. “At its weakest, this Lion King merely rehashes the original story, but even then, it’s a luminous production which is satisfying enough to simply let the vistas enrapture the audience,” he writes. “And, while this remake is primarily geared towards families, Favreau doesn’t shy away from the story’s sombre, even scary underpinnings. If it’s enormously cute to watch photo-realistic cubs scamper to and fro, it’s equally unnerving when the wiry Scar enters the frame — or when his hellacious hyena henchmen threaten Simba. To be sure, the original’s traditional animation had flair, but the remake’s live-action-ish quality allows us to fully appreciate just how powerful and dangerous these creatures are.”

The Los Angeles TimesKenneth Turan notes in his positive review that "though the new ground it breaks is visual rather than dramatic or emotional, this is a polished, satisfying entertainment that just about dares you to look a gift lion in the mouth."

Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt asserts that despite not presenting much new when it comes to story, The Lion King still has something to offer: "If the film feels a little airless for all that open space, maybe it’s because the movie’s CG is so elaborately, meticulously made that it doesn’t leave much room for the spark of spontaneity. The story and the songs, with a few notable if hardly unexpected updates, are fondly faithful to the original; the magic mostly intact. Another reboot was never terribly necessary, maybe — but it’s good, still, to be King."

The best summary of the discomfort critics are feeling about the movie likely comes from Stephanie Zacharek from Time, who writes that “this Lion King is a faithful remake, and in terms of its technology, it’s at times quite beautiful to behold. Giraffes run hither and thither on spotty, spindly legs; zebra herds dash by, a stripey blur. But there’s no sense of wonder in this new Lion King — its most visible attribute is ambition. It works hard for the money. Chiefly, yours.”

The Lion King opens in theaters July 19.

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