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Photoreal 'Lion King' Wows Eyes And Ears, But Not Heart

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
James Earl Jones once again voices Mufasa in "The Lion King."

There are moments in the new photorealistic version of “The Lion King” that look so lifelike, you’d swear it was filmed on location. The film takes place in an Africa of your dreams, an unspoiled savannah with picturesque rock formations, deep gorges, and flowing, tall grass. The animators can be proud of these Pride Lands. But there’s a curious lifelessness to many of the characters, which led me to ultimately prefer the original hand-drawn “Lion King” to this new version, as much as I admired its technical wizardry.

Director Jon Favreau hints at the struggle I had in his commentary track on the new Blu-ray of the film when he talks about self-imposing limitations on the project that kept the characters looking and behaving more like real animals, with very little room for expressing emotions on the face that humans would recognize. For the most part, that means the voice actors had to carry the emotion of a scene, and with some animals, that works okay, because their bodies can also be used to express feelings (think of the lions, or the mandrill). But Timon and Pumbaa, as much as I tried to find them adorable and funny, just look like a rodent and a big, hairy warthog. Your adorableness mileage may vary.

The story follows the 1994 “Lion King” nearly beat for beat, with a few scenes and lines added to flesh out motivation and character. But while some have complained that this new version is practically a “shot by shot” remake of the film, they’re incorrect. Favreau explains on his audio commentary that there are some scenes in the film so iconic he didn’t want to even try to change them, but most of the time, watching the 2019 “Lion King,” I felt like I was seeing something close to a Disneynature documentary.

Movie geeks may be surprised to see the six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel listed in the credits as the director of photography on “The Lion King.” After all, this movie was created with computers. But Deschanel was vital to the process. Using a new virtual reality technology, entire landscapes were created and lit within the virtual world, and Deschanel, wearing a headset, could work with his team of riggers on an empty set to “move” within scenes, physically “pulling” the camera in ways that to my knowledge have never been performed on a computer-animated movie. It’s a brilliant technique, and I encourage you to listen to Deschanel’s interview with Leonard and Jessie Maltin on the “Maltin On Movies” podcast to hear him explain clearly and in detail how the process works.

The film’s other major difference to its 1994 companion is in its score and songs. Oh, they’re familiar—but Hans Zimmer, working with a larger orchestra and chorus, brings a more robust sound to the score, and Beyonce, singing as the adult Nala, knocks “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” out of the park. I wish I could say the same for Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon, who--bless their hearts--just don't have the pitch or charisma to pull it off.

Why does this new version of “The Lion King” exist? The cynical answer is that Disney knows it’s easier to sell movies and characters that are already familiar. But I also believe that the creative team behind each of Disney’s remakes honestly feels they're trying to do something different with each film. The most successful remakes diverge from their source material in varying degrees. With 2015’s “Cinderella,” Disney actually bested its 1950 original by giving its characters a backstory, genuine emotions, and incredible costumes. For “Pete’s Dragon” in 2016, the filmmakers used only the basic premise of a boy and his invisible dragon to tell an entirely new story that subtly worked in an environmental message. “Maleficent” turned “Sleeping Beauty” on its head in 2014, focusing on the villain. But when the movie hews too close to the original, as in “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” (2019), or “Beauty and the Beast,” it only serves to remind you why you loved the animated film in the first place.

“The Lion King” on Blu-ray

The new Blu-ray of “The Lion King” comes with music videos featuring Beyonce, including a new song, “Spirit,” written for the film by her along with Ilya Salmanzadeh and Labrinth. There are three featurettes on the disc that go into the process of music, visual effects, and story. There’s also a three minute PSA for protecting and preserving the world lion population through the Lion Recovery Fund, an admirable message.