There’s a video that went viral earlier this year in which a father films his two-year-old daughter watching Disney’s 1994 animated movie The Lion King for the first time. Specifically, the clip shows her reaction to the scene—that scene—in which Scar throws Mufasa off a cliff into a wildebeest stampede.
“No! No! No! No! No!” the girl, named Bella, pleads as Mufasa falls through the air into a gorge. When even the toddler understands what is about to happen to the pride leader, Bella drops her teddy bear, she’s so distraught. He disappears into a billowing cloud of dust, and the little girl lets out a blood-curdling scream—one not so different than the one Simba unleashes in the film.
Off-camera you can hear Bella’s father snickering. In the months since he posted it online, the video has spread across the internet through strangers in solidarity with Bella, shared from a place of understanding by those who have been through the same rite of passage: the trauma of watching in horror for the first time as Mufasa falls to his death in front of his young son.
Bella reacting so purely and intensely brought them all back to the shock of that scene. It also served as a reminder of the emotional power of the 1994 film, a crowning achievement of the golden age of Disney animated musicals and, in turn, one of the highest-grossing films of all-time.
I bring that clip up now because it exemplifies the very challenges faced by Disney’s splashy new version of The Lion King, made with cutting-edge technology and featuring Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, and Billy Eichner in lead voice roles.
One is the gravity of the connection many audiences have with the animated musical; two generations at this point have received a determinative education on mortality and loss through the film. The other is the aforementioned emotional power of this perfectly structured Shakespeare-meets-the-Serengeti story, its booming Tim Rice and Elton John score, and its dazzling animation.
It’s that latter point, the film’s look, that this new Lion King, in theaters July 18, takes most seriously. It is possibly one of the most visually arresting films I’ve ever seen, and a bona fide game-changer when it comes to visual effects technology and CGI animation.
From the breathtaking colors, solar flares, and light reflections shining through the Pridelands sky—as if applying an Instagram filter to what is already the most astonishing landscape nature has to offer—to the meticulous detail of the photorealistic character animation, The Lion King is a masterpiece feast for the eyes.
That much was true, too, remember, of the landmark animation in the 1994 film. So when it comes to this new venture, the question becomes whether those gorgeous visuals are enough to justify this massive remake of a modern cultural touchstone. On that, we estimate people will be pretty split.
It’s unclear whether it was Disney that first termed this version of the Lion King “live-action,” or if the press and social media appropriated that designation from the recent reimaginings of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Cinderella, et al, and the assumption was never clarified.
This Lion King is, quite obviously, not live-action. There are no actual lions speaking to each other, no real-life baboons breaking out into song, nor wild meerkats hitching rides on the backs of warthogs. It is a groundbreaking attempt at photorealistic animal animation, and it is mesmerizing.
It’s imperfect; you can tell you’re watching a hyper-realistic cartoon. But from a cinema-geek standpoint, that at times can be more wondrous. You know that what you’re watching is achieved through revolutionary technology, and you’re excited by the potential that holds for the future. (There’s something very Disney about that, too.)
The “Circle of Life” opening number should give you chills from frame one. A lifelike rhino appears on the savannah. A leopard preens on a fallen tree trunk. The gazelles start leaping, the giraffes lumbering, the monkeys dancing. Paired with that music, it’s magical.
This is now the second time that iconic opener has been reinterpreted, the last in the actual “live-action” version of the animated film: Julie Taymor’s 1997 Broadway musical adaptation. In order to make the production work in that stage format, Taymor opted to go even more surreal and fantastical than the cartoon, with puppetry and clever stagecraft accomplishing what real-life (aka casting singing-and-dancing lions) couldn’t.
The result was a visceral live experience that elevated everything that made the animated film already so poignant.
While hardly the cynical cash-grab several of the other recent Disney “live-action” films have been accused of—there seems to be a real creative curiosity in seeing how this new technology might invigorate storytelling for the future—this new Lion King falls short of any sort of all-encompassing experience.
It turns out that it’s quite hard to make photorealistic animals emote.
It’s admittedly unsettling when the characters start to speak for the first time and your brain tries to wrap your head around how a lion that looks that much like a lion would open and close his mouth in an embouchure that would allow him to speak English in the style of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who lends his voice to villain Scar. This discomfort is compounded further when they start singing.
That’s not entirely of import; you get over it within the film’s first act. But there’s something about the characters’ eyes that, for all the impressive detail in their physicalities—every muscle ripples and hair sways as if they would in nature—fails the story’s emotional core.
You have Scar delivering one of his delectably evil Shakespearean lines and, as his dripping words linger in the air, the camera pans to a pride of lionesses looking back at him with what appear to be blank stares. In every way that each corner of every frame is alive with vivid detail and invigorating motion, the characters themselves, by virtue of this photorealistic technique, are rendered rather lifeless.
That wildebeest scene that shook poor Bella to her core is a perfect test case for this. In 1994, that scene marked a monumental advancement in the use of CGI animation. Combined with the heart-pumping score and the expressive animation on the faces of Simba, Scar, and Mufasa, it became one of the most memorable scenes in animated history.
The leaps in animation technology shown in the 2019 version of this scene make it mind-blowing in its own right. But as Simba screams in horror as Mufasa plummets to his death, this time with even more alarming realism, it’s somehow not as affecting. Don’t be fooled, it’s still a punch to the gut. But emotionally speaking, it’s not the same knockout.
There’s something about animated characters, whether we’re talking about Disney’s hand-drawn favorites or Pixar’s cherished 3D standouts, that resonate so powerfully, their animated nature allowing them to become avatars for our own outsized emotions. Their elastic expressions and proportion-be-damned exaggerations become vessels for larger-than-life feelings that we sometimes need to express, but do not have the earthly capacity to.
It’s why Bella shrieks when Mufasa dies; it’s all too much to feel in this world. These photorealistic characters, looking so much like animals in it, create a barrier to that.
That’s not to say that these characters aren’t fun to spend time around. This is The Lion King. It is still hilarious, still heartbreaking, still a rousing good time. The new voice cast does ace work, as you would expect them to given the caliber of talent involved. All of the original voice actors are still alive and indelible in their own right, though only James Earl Jones is invited back, reprising his work as Mufasa.
Glover is a slyer, cooler adult Simba. Beyoncé makes an effortful mark as Nala, and gets a new song through which to show off her Beyoncéness. John Oliver is a suitably batty Zazu, while Ejiofor is markedly less campy—and as such perhaps even more terrifying—as Scar.
The scene-stealers are without question the comedy duo of Rogen as Pumbaa and Eichner as Timon, which might not be surprising but somehow still exceeds expectations. Eichner, in particular, delivers an all-time great voice performance, one of the funniest I’ve ever seen in an animated film.
That’s the thing. Of course this Lion King is funny. Of course the musical numbers are phenomenal. The source material demands it, and it’s hardly changed here. It’s the technology that we’re experimenting with, and I’m unsure to what degree of success.
From a pure achievement standpoint, it’s a home run. But to what end is photorealism a value-add creatively? The rest of the production is enough of a control for the most passionate of original Lion King fans out there to be dubious: Is this merely one of the most exceedingly ambitious and expensive rehashes of nostalgia?
It’s an imperfect analogy, but music fans might liken it to the practice of converting original vinyl recordings to remastered digital formats. It may be necessary to preserve the recording for the future and ensure its longevity as mediums evolve and tastes adapt. But, god, there’s something to the sound of those vinyls, crisp and elevated as a digital conversion may be. Similarly, there’s something to that original animation.
Either way, you’ll be happy. The classic is still the classic. The music will move you. The genius is intact. Bella is going to shriek in despair; I sure did. But, given the choice, which would we rather consume?