Realism sucks

Image courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

2/10 They don’t hit that initial “nants ingonyama” hard enough. They don’t hit anything hard enough.

In National Geographic’s The Lion King, Mufasa and Sarabi (James Earl Jones and Alfre Woodard), King and Queen of Pride Rock, give birth to their first cub, Simba (JD McCrary). Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s scheming brother who wants to rule himself, arranges Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile, leading to the Pride Lands’ ruin. Three years later after a conversation with some clouds, an adult Simba (Donald Glover) returns to reclaim the throne.

The photorealistic Lion King remake takes this story, this musical about anthropomorphized animals which is covered in Shakespearean, Biblical and Arthurian overtones like thick Canadian syrup, and tries to ground it in realistic elements, such as lions not being able to make facial expressions or sing. It tries to do this while also repeating all of the iconic songs and moments of a movie so beloved that almost every individual moment is iconic.

Unwilling to make nearly any significant changes, The Lion King remake is almost the exact same movie, just with a sad, desaturated – but oh so photorealistic! – coat of paint put over it. The most prominent effect is to suck all the expressiveness out of the characters, whose faces are photorealistically incapable of expressing human emotion. They also speak and sing with jaws that are, photorealistically, incapable of speaking English, and simply flap open and closed like those of a dead muppet.

It is absolutely horrifying.

Despite lacking significant differences, the remake is somehow a full half hour longer than the original, so we get to spend plenty of extra time in abject terror. Director Jon Favreau said the extra time would be spent fleshing characters out. It’s clear who he means immediately after “Circle of Life,” when we spend a full two minutes following the random field mouse Scar plays with in the first scene. So fleshed out. I sympathize so much more with that field mouse with no name and no lines now.

The scene later in the movie where a tuft of Simba’s hair  blows its way to Rafiki (John Kani), the Pride Lands’ mandrill shaman, letting him know that Simba is alive, is now about 10 times longer and includes an extended moment in the life of a dung beetle. Really glad that was fleshed out. Really glad I got to spend minutes of my life watching this tuft of fur wave in the breeze while stuck in a rolled-up wad of giraffe shit.

But! In the movie’s defense, it’s a highly photorealistic wad of giraffe shit!

The meme says that if they don’t hit that initial “nants ingonyama,” you walk out of the theater, but as you would expect when the source material is this revered and when remake misses the mark almost every single time, disappointing moments abound.

The real heartbreak for me was listening to Seth Rogen mumble out “When I was a young warthog,” a lyric that can only properly be delivered with ferocious, operatic gusto, but by far the biggest letdown in the objective sense is Mufasa’s big scene. In the original, in certainly the most famous moment in a movie comprised almost exclusively of famous moments, he appears to Simba as a cloud of holy light and tells him to take his rightful place as King of Pride Rock. In this remake, it’s just a cloud.

I’m dead serious, it’s just a cloud. It’s photorealistic, though! Favreau made a big deal out of keeping a shot of real footage in the final cut, just to see if viewers could tell the difference – maybe that was it! This fire-and-brimstone sequence in which God himself comes down from the sky to talk sense into the lead character genuinely could have been a shot of a real cloud!

The big hook for The Lion King was it’s so, so wonderfully photorealistic that Disney could market it as live-action, putting it in with a decade-long string of Disney remakes, most of which really are live action. After some experimentation in the first couple, they’ve largely devolved into scene-for-scene remakes that change little, and don’t make any of the changes called for by the change in format.

I’ve got a soft spot for 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman for a lot of different reasons, but one of the foundational decisions made in that movie, one that seems an obvious choice, was to completely re-works the classic cartoon, with a darker story to match a darker tone aimed at a more mature audience that pulls on different elements of the original fairy tale. It made the necessary adjustments to achieve homeostasis within a new format, a new period of history and a new target audience, and it really seems like the need to at least try to do that shouldn’t need to be spelled out, but here we are.

That fear of making changes is palpable in the Lion King remake. They’ve brought James Earl Jones back to play Mufasa again. His voice was so perfect in originating the role it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing the character, but they made him re-record all of the lines, and it’s easy to tell he’s 25 years older now. I suppose you could make a movie about Tired Grandpa Mufasa as opposed to Batman Daddy Mufasa, but that’s the type of change that would call for a ripple-effect of other decisions to find that homeostasis that they already decided wasn’t important here.

Much of the rest of the cast is just wrong. Ejiofor would actually be a decent choice to step into Jones’ shoes as a new Mufasa, but instead, he helps transition his character from Flaming Hitler Scar to Boringly Covetous Scar. They’ve added in a plot point where he’d previously challenged Mufasa for the throne in a stand-up fight, for all that matters. Instead of being very gay, Scar now has a thing for Serabi, and tries to strongarm her into bed. Another few minutes of additional runtime, another reason to leave this remake feeling gross.

Lead hyenas Shenzi, Kamari and Azizi (Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre) are reworked. Now, Shenzi is the queen of the hyenas with whom Scar organizes a truce, because adding explicit geopolitics to children’s movies always works out. Shenzi’s ascension paves the way for a big lady-cat showdown with Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child), which helps The Lion King fall in with Disney’s recent girl power kick.

Scar’s homoeroticism is replaced by Timone and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Rogen), who are now much more explicitly paired. Eichner and Rogen are particularly uninspired choices, and it would have been much more edifying to see Key and Andre in these roles instead of the smaller hyena parts.

Wait a minute. Eichner, Rogen, John Oliver – all the white cast members are playing prey animals, and all the black cast members are playing predators.

Am I crazy? Yes. Yes I am. Disney has made me crazy.

The trend toward realism came to Disney specifically when Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton passion project that was also redesigned from the ground up to work as a live-action – but far, far from a realist – piece, unexpectedly grossed $1 billion in 2010, but the trend toward realism as a larger film movement goes back five years earlier to Batman Begins, which, again, was built from the ground up to conform to a realist aesthetic. When put into context with Batman’s history in media, the Dark Knight series is a master class in the kind of bold changes that are required to make this work, and the past decade is a graveyard of blockbusters that fell flat on their faces for not learning these lessons.

The Lion King (2019) is not falling flat on its face. The Lion King (2019) is setting a new record opening for the month of July, and though it’s a splat critically – 54% as of this writing is an absolutely horrible number for modern Disney movies, which normally skew very high – audiences seem to love it for some reason.

After just one weekend in release, it’s rocketed to sixth on the domestic charts, giving Disney the top six grossing films on the year – though Spider-Man: Far From Home is shared with Sony. The monster studio has yet to release Frozen 2 in November and Star Wars Episode IX in December.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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