The Lion King and the Constraints of Realism

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6105098/)

With the outbreak and subsequent crackdowns due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I have finally had time to catch up on some of the numerous movies I didn’t see in 2019. Two of the most notable have been Toy Story 4 (a movie that’s pretty good despite not having a reason to exist) and the remake of The Lion King, two of Disney’s biggest smash hits in a year where the studio grossed a record $10 billion worldwide. While Toy Story 4 was a sequel to an established trilogy, the new Lion King was a live action remake of the 1994 animated classic, adapting and retelling the same story in a new aesthetic as part of Disney’s re-imagining of its extensive library of films

Directed by Jon Favreau, given the green light after the critical and commercial success of the 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book, the remake of The Lion King echoes that of its cinematic predecessor in that both attempt to render their respective worlds realistically. While both The Lion King and The Jungle Book were originally hand drawn animated features, the former one of the best in the medium and the latter, um, not so much, their adaptations portray the animals and landscape through state of the art CGI, aiming for “what if Planet Earth but a Disney story” rather than cartoons stretched to cinematic length. Both films look stunning, the CGI is absolutely incredible, and the remake of the Jungle Book is arguably an improvement over the 1967 film. However, the 2019 Lion King fails to hold up to the 1994 move, largely because it is constrained rather than improved by its realistic style.

This piece is not simply a defense of the original and a condemnation of the new film, a defensive reflex fueled by the nostalgia blinders of a child born in the early 1990s that has watched the original Lion King more times than any other film. There are quite a few good elements in the remake. It does look very nice, the CGI depicting the world of The Lion King as realistically as possible with contemporary technology. Favreau and the creative team made greater efforts to bring in a diverse cast, bringing in Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simba, Nala, and Scar respectively. Timon and Pumbaa are as great in this movie as they were in the original (if not even better), with voice actors Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner incorporating meta jokes and updating the humor to appeal to both adults and children in a tasteful manner (Eichner’s Timon is a stand out, the character an even sassier version than the one voiced by Nathan Lane). Despite these positives, however, the commitment to realism works to the detriment of the adaptation, with certain narrative beats restricted by aesthetics.

Circle of Life
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ey9kr

The remake starts just as as the 1994 version begins, with all of the animals of the Pride Lands gathering to witness the birth of the future king Simba. The new film, in its opening scenes, is almost a shot for shot adaptation of the original, with the CGI rendered animals moving in almost the same way as their 2-D counterparts. Most of the scenes in the new version echo that of the original, appealing to the nostalgia of the older audiences bringing and indoctrinating their children into all things Disney or simply watching a retelling of a beloved classic.

However, “most” and “almost” does not mean a total copy, as there are subtle differences in the new film that work to its disadvantage. The vibrant colors throughout the 1994 movie, the crimson red sunrise to open the film, the color changes and fantastical imagery during “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (the “be careful what you wish for song“), the increasingly demonic tenor of “Be Prepared” as the song goes from Shakespearean plotting to Hitler rally to hell on earth, are all absent in the new version in the name of realism, resulting in a film that is less pretty than its original incarnation. Realistically presenting the African landscape leads to a film that resembles what we can see and know rather than one we can imagine, appealing to the mind, but not necessarily our sense of wonder.

The realistic style affects how the story unfolds, the most notable example being the wildebeest stampede leading to Mufasa’s death. In the original version, the stampede is a dramatic set piece, a fast-paced scene in which Simba struggles to survive and Mufasa rescues his son before being killed by Scar. The scene, one that traumatized many young adults of my age range, remains memorable and impactful because of its technical greatness, the tension of the moment accentuated by the sound mixing and Hans Zimmer’s score. In the original film, the animators took liberties with the speed and the physical limits of the animals, focusing instead on the tension and the emotions of the scene rather than accuracy. In the remake, a film predicated on realism, the animals only move as fast as they can in real life and only behave as they would in the wild. This works to the detriment of the scene, the emotional crux of the movie, as the pace (and even the music) slow down from those in the original, resulting in a scene with less tension that in the 1994 version.

Finally, the remake’s commitment to realism prevents the characters from properly emoting, expressing how they are feeling at any particular point as they did in the original. Though we project emotions (i.e. when dogs smile or when cats seem to pout) as well as develop our own stories when viewing animals (whether it be our pets or those at the zoo) and recognize when animals are stressed or in peril, they don’t react and emote based on a preset narrative, that’s not how real life works. The characters in the original Lion King were animals rather than anthropomorphic, but expressed emotions as humans do in order to portray the story and illustrate how the animals felt at a given moment (the movie was geared toward children after all, the young audience needed to be able to understand what was going on). Thus, in the original film, the characters smiled when they were happy, furrowed their brows when upset, and, in the case of the wildebeest stampede, very clearly expressed shock and horror at the death of a parent.

Simba (1)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/09/disneys-is-remaking-the-lion-king/

In the remake, rather than expressing emotion like humans, the animals make faces and act like realistic animals, preventing them from emoting as they did in the original. Throughout, the characters deliver lines from the original version and those familiar with the plot know how they are feeling, but the characters do not express the emotion they are feeling in a given scene. When Scar is plotting, his face remains blank, the character reenacting lines but not demonstrating the cunning and evil qualities very clearly expressing in the original. Simba, a character that runs the gamut of emotions in the 1994 film, is a lion cub depicted in realistic CGI, his reaction to the stampede and Mufasa’s death missing the horror and emotional weight. Rather than anguish, the new version simply looks like a cat “mewing,” undermining the emotional crux of the film, the adherence to realism working against the adaptation.

Simba No
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://youtu.be/jy4UdBcyh3c

The new version of The Lion King isn’t a bad film, even if it isn’t a good or great one like its predecessor. The realistic CGI presents a beloved classic in a new style and for a new audience, allowing people my age to revisit the world of the Lion King while also bringing younger audiences closer to their parents.  The new version looks pretty and realistic, the animals ranging from impossibly cute to ferocious and the CGI state of the art, but this works against the emotional storytelling and making the animal characters relatable, especially for a younger audience. Ultimately, the film represents the difficulties in remaking animated classics as well as the complications involved in medium transfers. This is not to dismiss the remake project entirely (it is making too much money for Disney to say no), but to say that style and realism can be a constraint when retelling a story previously depicted in animation. In the pursuit of telling a story in a new way, The Lion King along with the other Disney remakes bring characters and worlds to “live action” if not necessarily “to life.”

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