By: Sarit Perl  | 

'The Lion King:' Live-Action Remakes and Disney's 'Circle of Life'

Why would anyone pay to see a movie they’ve already seen?

Considering Disney has pulled in $7 billion in box office revenues from nine “live-action reimaginings” of animated classics, it seems that plenty of people have found a good reason. Whether it’s the nostalgia for the Disney magic of our childhood, introducing the next generation to family favorites, or simply a burning curiosity to see, compare and contrast, millions have flocked to cinemas worldwide to watch these remakes, despite them often receiving mixed or overwhelmingly negative reviews. As an avid Disney fan, I have allowed myself to be swept along in this phenomenon, and I have found that in general, my reaction to most, if not all, of these movies has been roughly the same: I was dazzled by the visuals, thrilled with the updated characters and plot, ambivalent about the casting and thoroughly disappointed with the music and vocals. 

Which is why, with its strong, stunning vocals and hyper-realistic visuals that are a  frame-for-frame replication of the scene from the original 1994 film, the very first notes and iconic opening shot of “The Lion King” filled me with excitement and hope. “Circle of Life” is easily the best scene in the movie — but it’s also the first scene, which unfortunately means the rest of the film is inevitably disappointing.

Disney’s other movies may have benefited from live-action updates; in stories centered around humans, even humans that have been transformed into animals or objects, a “real-people” version brings the characters and the messages closer to home. But in the case of “The Lion King,” more real means less human, and therefore far less compelling. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the computer-generated images from which the entire film is composed have absolutely zero real-life foundation. We call it live-action, but it’s just as much animation as the original was — the only difference is traditional versus digital art. The images were created from scratch without incorporating any live footage. For whatever reason, Disney chose not to put its cast in CGI suits and layer animalistic features over their faces — a technique that proved incredibly effective in the update of “Beauty and the Beast”— and it cost them dearly. The animals were missing the anthropomorphism that brought them to life in the animated film, and their expressionless faces are out of sync with the actors’ dynamic voice-over performances.

Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice’s iconic score was given new life by new and returning vocalists — most notably “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which features soaring new harmonies and Beyonce’s signature riffs. However, the soundtrack stands better on its own; the animation, which just couldn’t quite synchronize voice and mouth (muzzle? snout?) during musical numbers made the entire score feel detached, as if it were dubbed over an existing track. 

Equally disappointing were the modifications to the script that drastically changed the atmosphere of the film, making it far more sinister and far less entertaining. Slippery sarcasm and clever puns, silkily delivered by Jeremy Irons in the original, made Scar a captivating and entertaining character who reveled in the theatrics of his villainous plans. Scar's 2019 incarnation, voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, lacks any sense of humor or self-awareness, and is reduced to a one-dimensional, overdramatic stock villain. Timon and Pumbaa deliver some much-needed humor, but even they felt like ghosts of the charmingly over-the-top characters given to us by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. The hyenas are no longer hilarious henchmen — Shenzi, once a wisecracking and sassy sidekick, is now a terrifying presence in her own right, without an ounce of humor in her cackle. The iconic trio never even appear on screen together, and the remaining two provide maybe two comedic moments throughout the entire film. 

I have long defended Disney’s decision to pour their time, money, and creativity into reinventing their beloved classics for 21st century audiences. I loved the idea of giving the Beast a tragic backstory and making Belle an embattled advocate for education. I was thrilled with the decision to make Jasmine’s desire for independence political as well as personal. And of course, as a costume design enthusiast, I couldn’t wait to see the exquisite designs that brought to life the iconic wardrobes of all of Disney’s characters. However, after seeing this latest installment in a series of remakes, I am forced to accept the truth about them. “The Lion King” is an incoherent collage of scenes that copycat (pun intended) the original film but lacks its spirit, yet still making millions at the box office thanks to loyal fans and a big-name cast. I realized that the new additions that had drawn me in were not the catalysts for remaking these movies, but afterthoughts added to “refurbish” old material whose continued use would guarantee ticket sales. Disney Studios was once the forerunner in creative entertainment; it is now practically the only runner, having bought out all of its competitors, and seems to function more like any other corporate machine than a company determined to “entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling,” with new material or otherwise. Mufasa’s wise words encourage Simba to reclaim his identity and return to his roots, and Disney would do well to heed them: Remember who you are.


Photo Credit: Pixabay