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'The Lion King' Returns. That's The 'Circle Of Life.' Here's Your Review

James Earl Jones voices Mufasa and JD McCrary voices Young Simba in the live-action remake of "The Lion King." (Courtesy Disney Enterprises, Inc.)
James Earl Jones voices Mufasa and JD McCrary voices Young Simba in the live-action remake of "The Lion King." (Courtesy Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Disney’s box-office domination continues with its remake of “The Lion King.” The modern CGI looks beautiful, but does the story fall flat?

Guests

Aramide Tinubu, entertainment editor at Stylecaster. Film writer with bylines at outlets including Shadow and Act, The A.V. Club, Essence and NBC. ( @wordwitharamide)

Josh Spiegel, co-host of the “Mousterpiece Cinema,” a podcast on Disney movies. His writing has appeared on the sites /Film, Heat Vision, SyFy Wire, ScreenCrush and more. ( @mousterpiece)

Charles Bramesco, freelance film and TV critic writing for outlets including The Guardian and Vulture. ( @intothecrevasse)

Watch on YouTube.

From The Reading List

Stylecaster: “ Yes, We’ve Seen ‘The Lion King’ Before But This Movie Is Next Level” — “From the moment the light rose on screen, and the animals begin singing ‘The Circle Of Life,’ I knew this film would be something special. Disney’s The Lion King 2019 movie will be adored by generations of people– those who have been enamored with the 1994 animated film since it debuted, and a slew of others who are newcomers to the tale.

“No matter when you first discovered Simba’s story, the live-action Lion King will leave you speechless. There has been a ton of anticipation surrounding the return to Pride Rock. The Lion King is one of the most-beloved from Disney’s vault. Therefore, there was a great deal of pressure on director Jon Favreau to make sure that the film looked terrific visually–while maintaining the integrity of the story.

“The craftsmanship in 2019’s The Lion King is breathtaking. The CGI looks so hyperrealistic that the audience will feel like they’re in Subsaharan Africa right along with the animals. Though there is some sameness when it comes to the lions’ coloring –the distinctive voices of James Earl Jones’ Mufasa, Donald Glover’s adult Simba, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s sinister Scar are enough to distinguish them easily. Also, the majority of the audience will know the story well–so there should be little cause for confusion.”

Washington Post: “ ‘The Lion King’ feels way more like ‘Hamlet’ this time — and that’s why it’s so good” — “From the stirring first moments of Disney’s upgraded ‘The Lion King’ — a turbocharged animal fable that, like 2016’s ‘The Jungle Book,’ uses photorealistic CGI animation to add visual heft and emotional resonance to what was a charming, hand-drawn cartoon — it’s clear that this African-set narrative of a doomed king and his reluctant-prince son has tapped into a powerful well of myth. As Rafiki the mandrill hoists the newborn lion cub Simba high above a savanna full of Simba’s future subjects — adoring antelopes, gamboling giraffes and other worshipful wildlife — a heavenly choir sings about the ‘Circle of Life.’

“Translation? In this new, virtual-flesh-and-blood version of the film, the creatures that have assembled to pay their respects to Simba are essentially his breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lives that are at stake, and sometimes lost, in this vivid evocation of human power struggles — expressed via the metaphor of the food chain — have never felt so precious or so vital.

“‘But Dad,’ Simba asks his father, Mufasa, at one point, ‘don’t we eat the antelopes?’

“There’s something about this ‘Lion King,’ which, like the original, has its narrative roots in ‘Hamlet,’ that feels so much more Shakespearean and — there’s no other word for it — so much more tragic than the 1994 feature-length animation, in which the story’s darker themes were subliminal, not center stage. Here, the death of a beloved character, one whose fur looks so real you could pet it, is that much harder to take.”

The A.V. Club: “ The dead-eyed new Lion King painfully illustrates the difference between cinema and video games” — “For a generation of children, the sight of lion prince Simba watching his father, Mufasa, die in a wildebeest stampede in 1994’s The Lion King represented a first encounter with mortality. Disney’s animators render the moment with a terrible poignancy that can stay with a person for the rest of their life. Mufasa first falls down toward the ‘camera,’ a reverse shot from above accompanies his final roar, and then we rapidly zoom out from the pupil of Simba’s eye to reveal his horrified face. His mouth hangs agape, his eyebrows pull back in shock, and his yellow-orange eyes widen to make him look like the frightened little boy he is.

“The Mouse House’s new Lion King remake employs photorealistic computer animation to replicate this moment almost exactly. Except that when we get that glimpse of Simba’s reaction, there’s no helplessness, no lost innocence, no fear. There is just the face of a lion, making the only face lions make, albeit with his jaw lowered. One thinks of the words of Werner Herzog, who described looking into the eyes of a chicken and seeing nothing but ‘a real stupidity, a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity.’ Having said all that, you’ve got to hand it to Disney: It sure does look like a real lion.”

Vanity Fair: “ The New Lion King Just Isn’t Animated Enough” — “In The Lion King—Disney’s 1994 animated original—a pride of lions, led by the king Mufasa, perform a series of extraordinary behaviors. They squint. They wince. Their eyebrows arch to and fro with emotion: panic, anger, a slick sense of satisfaction, a devious sense of scheming. Welcome to anthropomorphism 101. Animals: they’re just like us, when we draw them.

“In the new Lion King, helmed by Jon Favreau and out in theaters July 19, much is the same. There are capital-E-emotions. The plot beats are almost completely unrevised, as are many of the visual sequences. That iconic opening—the anointing of Simba as the future king of the pride, borne skyward by a mystical mandrill named Rafiki as the animal kingdom bows in reverence—is unchanged. Disney isn’t stupid; this is a company that knows why we’re here, or thinks it does. And so, again, we have Simba: hero, taunted by hyenas, blamed for the death of his father Mufasa, driven off of Pride Rock by that nefarious, hang-dog uncle Scar. All is well; all is the same.

“But in the words of that wise old mandrill Rafiki: Look harder. More than one person in your life is going to liken the photorealistic look of this movie to that of a video game cut scene — those scripted interstitial sequences that make video games feel more movie-like. They will not be entirely wrong.

“More flatteringly, The Lion King is being hailed as a major advancement for movie technology—a movie ‘filmed’ almost entirely in virtual reality. Wired magazine recently described it thusly: ‘They’—the film’s distinctive locales—’can live inside a kind of filmmaking video­game as 360-degree virtual environments full of digitized animals, around which Favreau and his crew could roam.’

“The result? The fine digital craftsmanship of our new era, replete with all the vices it entails: nostalgic reenactments of scenes we’ve seen before; colorless voice acting by name-brand performers, the likes of Beyoncé and Donald Glover (who play adult Nala and Simba, respectively); and a color-drained visual palette befitting an early aughts movie about war in the Middle East. Early on, it was clear I’d be able to count every ridge, sub-ridge, and micro-ridge on the trunk of every elephant, and count out the strands of hair on Rafiki’s face. But watching all this made me feel a bit like Little Red Riding Hood visiting the Big Bad Wolf, wearing the guise of her grandmother. Simba, what large, inexpressive, marble-shined eyes you have! What an uncannily post-Botox emotional range you have!”

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.