Recently I’ve been working on becoming a better movie critic. I’ve read reviews by older and newer critics, and I’ve read books about analyzing movies and writing reviews. One of my favorite books on the subjects is Ann Hornaday’s “Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies.”
Hornaday is a gifted critic whose knowledge of film is multi-faceted, and she writes eloquently about her experiences and the importance of proper analysis. I met her a few months ago at a screening of “Sweet Smell of Success” where she responded to questions about the film and film criticism. Afterward, I knew I needed her book.
Since that day, I’ve cracked her book on multiple occasions, especially when I struggled to critique a film. I knew I would need it when reviewing the remake of “The Lion King.” While looking for a nugget of wisdom from Hornaday, I rediscovered a sentence in the introduction. In it, Hornaday recounts advice that David Friedman of the Philadelphia Daily News gave her: “Before you write any review, ask yourself three questions: ‘What was the artist trying to achieve?’ ‘Did they achieve it?’ And ‘Was it worth doing?’ ”
While I watched Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” these questions bounced around my brain and demanded answers. The answer to the first is that Favreau was trying to remake 1994’s “The Lion King” to honor the legacy of the original and develop new technology. He also tried to make the film longer with improvisational jokes and dialogue scenes that fleshed out character motivations.
Did he achieve what he tried to do? Yes, to an extent. He recreated the most iconic shots from the original, and what he was able to do with technology is groundbreaking. But the added bits and scenes were not achievements. They mostly reminded me that the original joke and actor’s performance were funnier or slowed the movie’s momentum.
As for the most important question, “Was it worth doing?” I unequivocally answer “no.” “The Lion King” is the most unnecessary movie I’ve ever seen. It is not a shot-for-shot remake of the original, but it’s clear that Favreau respects the 1994 film because he steals most of the shot compositions from it. He also recreates the iconic score and songs meticulously because he knows these songs are still sung loudly and proudly in minivans across the country. Had he not stayed true to the original tunes, audiences would likely be after him like a pack of ravenous hyenas. Favreau fails, though, as a voice actor-director and changes the mood of the scenes with noticeable twists to the dialogue.
The problem from the beginning with the Disney remake brand is that the producers have to acknowledge where Disney writers, animators and directors past have failed. Favreau admits with this film that the cast and crew of the original never failed. To Favreau, 1994’s “The Lion King” is a perfect movie, but he also has a job to do, and it’s not to make a shot-for-shot remake. These Disney remakes must be immediately recognizable to audiences, but there also must be slight changes so that the director and screenwriter can claim that it’s new.
One way that former Disney remake directors get away with this is by changing the tone of a character’s dialogue. For example, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar doesn’t have the same sardonic wit that Jeremy Irons had. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa don’t steal scenes because you get the sense they’re trying too hard to make audiences laugh. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella originally made me laugh without effort. “Hakuna Matata” means “No worries,” and Lane and Sabella understood that carefree attitude better than the new duo. When an actor is desperately heard searching for the joke, there is nothing carefree about the performance.
The new film’s mood also lacks the energy of the original in keys scenes such as the “I Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence. By creating a photo-realistic film, Favreau is not able to do anything stylish with color or production design. Instead of seeing Simba, Nala and Zazu weaving in and out of colorful animals and backgrounds in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” we see the characters playfully running through a photo-realistic group of animals.
These color choices were necessary in 1994. Simba has unrealistic expectations of what his kingdom would look like when he’s king, so he imagines a dreamlike reality. Then he and Nala stumble upon the elephant graveyard, which is symbolic of his future kingdom if he remains arrogant. In the new film, none of that is communicated because we go from one photo-realistic location to the next, and the only difference is that one is darker. These darker scenes are also not as effective because Favreau doesn’t balance comedy with drama as much as the original directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff did. Funny scenes are funny, and dramatic scenes are dramatic. There is no in-between in Favreau’s version of “The Lion King.” That in-between is what made “The Lion King” a classic beloved by adults and children.
I honestly didn’t hate this movie because so much of it is well produced. I acknowledge that the effects are incredible, the music is still as rousing as it was 25 years ago, and the shot composition is creative. But beyond its CGI makeover, nothing is interesting about it. The 1994 original is still king.