Some thoughts on The Lion King

UNPOPULAR OPINION: The Lion King is actually really good.

I was not looking forward to seeing this movie, I wasn’t even particularly interested in it. I had seen the 1994 movie, of course, and had analyzed it in depth when writing Antz in 1996. I’ve seen the Broadway show, which is wonderful. So I’m pretty familiar with the material, I didn’t think it would be necessary to see this new version. But I found myself in Hollywood with a few hours to kill while waiting to pick up my daughter, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll go see The Lion King.

The reviews that I’ve read complain about the characters’ lack of expressiveness and the lack of spectacle in the musical numbers. And yes, the decision to make the animals look, and behave, like real animals, obviates the question of Broadway-style show-stoppers and dancing giraffes.

So the challenge before the director, Jon Favreau, is to match, or top, the energy and beauty of the original movie while keeping one cinematic hand tied behind his back, as it were. And I have to say, he succeeds beautifully.

I didn’t find the characters unexpressive at all. Me, I generally find the performances of animated characters WAY over the top, every emotional i dotted to death, with bugging eyes, smirking mouths, bobbing shoulders and gesticulating hands. And yes, real animals don’t do any of those things. But it is not true that real animals aren’t expressive. Just around our own houses, we find animals expressing themselves in both obvious and subtle ways, fear and excitement and trepidation and boredom and anger, and we have no problem reading their expressions. And so it is here. The Lion King, like the Jungle Book adaptation before it, also directed by Favreau, substitutes the “cartoonish” expressions of its characters with real-life animal expressions, and I found it fascinating, because the characters are SO realistic, and so well-observed, that the design logic — real animals acting out a carefully-contrived script — got under my skin super fast, and I found myself seeing animals, hundreds of animals, thousands of animals, as though I’d never observed them before.

The thing is, there’s a tradition of this in Disney animation. Before Timon and Pumbaa did their vaudeville act, Disney animation, from Bambi to 101 Dalmations, was very much about observing the real motions and behavior of real animals. When you watch Bambi, it’s remarkable how much drama and pathos Disney wrings out of the common behaviors of deer. When you watch Lady and the Tramp, it’s as though Disney is sitting beside you saying “Look, a Cocker Spaniel, have you ever seen anything like it? How awesome is that dog?” The magic of Disney’s classic animated features is that, by putting its animals in their contrived plots, it allows us to see those animals as though we never have before.

And so it is here. When the young Simba takes a hesitant step back from a threatening Scar, we see a real lion cub reacting to a real threat. When Pumbaa sticks a hind hoof in his ear while distractedly answering a question, it’s a real warthog we’re seeing behaving in a real way. Favreau has taken the place of Disney, sitting beside us, saying “Look, a meerkat! How awesome is that?”

And so a “production number” like “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” while it does not have a pyramid of dancing animals, it DOES have Simba romping through the Savannah, with all the actual, true, real spectacle of all the wildlife there, building and building in its multiplicity and complexity, and, while we don’t get Broadway glitz, we DO get a thrilling, exalting, satisfying spectacle of the actual natural world. It’s a real achievement in moviemaking, and I’m rather baffled that more people haven’t seen it that way.

Comments

2 Responses to “Some thoughts on The Lion King
  1. We may have been primed to say “meh” by all the live-action remakes that have preceded it. Maleficent told a different story from Sleeping Beauty, but since then it’s basically felt like Disney was sticking the animated movies in a microwave and reheating them, often with extremely bland results. So when what everybody remembers of The Lion King is the dancing giraffes and pyramid of animals, a remake without such things risks coming across as less interesting than the original. Whereas if they had made a different movie about animals that took the same aesthetic approach you just described, we might be praising it to the skies.

    • Todd says:

      Disney actually tried this approach once, with a movie called Whispers. It was footage of a real elephant herd shot over two years by a team of wildlife photographers. Disney then edited the footage together to create a weird documentary-feature hybrid, where the animals were real, do real animal stuff, and had human voices dubbed over them to help create a story. It didn’t do well, but it remains an interesting idea.

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