Exit Poll is a series exploring the good, bad, and outright deranged films and events our editors are attending. This week: Mark Burger watches the 2019 remake of The Lion King, in all its CGI-soaked, Beyoncé-approved splendor. The result is as unnatural as it is unnecessary.
If you, like many, grew up watching the vibrant, brilliantly animated version of The Lion King, then its Donald Glover-led, heavily CGI’d “live action” remake is likely to be your most surreal viewing experience of 2019. This, shall we say, refashioned imagining follows the original film beat-for-beat, at least for the most part. The sun is still rolling through the sapphire sky to that iconic theme song; a baboon still presents a lion cub to a diverse audience of animals, and a gigantic, spectral lion still appears in the clouds to impart words of wisdom. The remake, however, is an experience akin to taking a hallucinogen and wandering around a zoo; the texture of fur is crisp and warm, and bodies saunter, bend, and twist with a disturbing level of ease and accuracy. To hear the phrases and songs we all know and love tumbling (however “realistically“) out of expressionless, digitally-rendered animals was uncanny, to say the least. It’s almost too lifelike–though, these days, I shouldn’t be surprised to find that a musical number featuring a photorealistic singing lion, warthog, and meerkat trio is perhaps more real than reality itself.
What’s more, this Lion King is undoubtedly leaning on its all-star voice cast. To bring Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and James Earl Jones (did I mention Beyoncé?) all together in the same film is an accomplishment that rivals any old ensemble superhero movie. Eichner and Rogan are delightful as the nihilistic Timon and Pumba, and absolutely deserve their own CGI-remake of the oft-forgotten The Lion King 1½, or at least a Disney+ spin-off show. But post-“Hakuna Matata,” I was struck not by the song’s lackluster montage sequence, but rather the fact that I was seconds away from seeing adult Nala, and I was therefore seconds away from hearing Beyoncé. She, in her infinite majesty, does the best she can, which is as much as all of the cast can do when it comes to voicing an animal that can’t do much in the visual emotion department. Would the film be better had it cast a host of unknowns to voice the characters? If so, would anyone even care to see it? 2019’s Lion King is a marvelous feat that showcases the (terrifying?) wonders of modern animation, but I came and left the theater more moved by the new Beyoncé album (which is, of course, excellent).
It doesn’t come as a surprise–nor should it–that the Disney empire is literally cashing in on decades of nostalgia, banking on the fact that people will see the film because, well, it’s The Lion King (now with 200% more Beyoncé!) I did, indeed, cry at the stampede scene, though not because of moving performances by computer-animated lions. I cried because that’s when, as a kid watching the original film, you were supposed to be sad. It’s safe to say that no one truly needed a remake of The Lion King–the story, in all its various iterations, is still a beloved classic (it’s EGOT-ed, for heaven’s sake). No one needs a photorealistic brawl between two lions, dueling for the fate of all the pride lands on a cliff above a raging wildfire. But did I enjoy watching it? Absolutely. Will I be barreling through awards season on the Give Beyoncé Her Awards rocket ship with all the fervor of a thousand Meryl Streeps? It’s a journey as inevitable as the Circle of Life itself.