The Lion King: Lost in Translation, by Tyler Smith
In 1998, director Gus Van Sant – fresh off the success of Good Will Hunting – orchestrated a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho. While many people decried this little experiment as deeply misguided, I think that it is academically fascinating. Van Sant was able to illustrate that perfectly replicating the choices of another director doesn’t necessarily mean that the newer film will be as effective. It turns out that hitting all the right notes doesn’t automatically create beautiful music; there is an intangible quality that can’t totally be quantified. Van Sant’s film may have been technically on point, but it lacked soul.
The same could be said for Jon Favreau’s photorealistic remake of the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King. The film hews so close to the original – specifically in story and character beats – that at times it feels like an intricate experiment in the same vein as Van Sant’s Psycho remake. As Favreau attempts to retain the visual and emotional power of the original film in a more realistic environment, the audience is invited – albeit inadvertently- to think about why the first film worked so well, and why this one feels so flat and perfunctory.
The film’s primary problem is in its very conception. Certainly, as visual effects have improved over the years, the idea of setting a “talking animal” movie in the real world must’ve been too good to pass up. But the choice to take an existing hand-drawn animated film and adapt it, rather than creating an original story (such as Babe in 1995), forces the filmmakers to tamp down the sense of imagination that marked Disney’s animation renaissance in the early 1990s. In order to simulate reality, Favreau has to desaturate the beautiful colors of the first film and scale back on the vibrant musical sequences, resulting in a film that, yes, is impressive in its realism, but also visually drab. And to take a dazzling, sincere tale and strip away everything that made it pop on screen seems like a choice that is destined for failure (at least artistically).
With the story so similar to the first film, Jon Favreau is forced to limit himself, which in turn makes the film feel like it is eager to burst out of its confines and present itself as something fun and exciting and wholly original. Unfortunately, with the exception of one or two brief extensions of existing action sequences, Favreau remains restricted by the requirements of Disney executives, looking to put a new spin on a reliable cash cow without any risk of alienating the original audience.
In this way, Favreau operates less as a director and more as a translator. His remake is like watching a person speak almost exclusively in quaint idioms as a nearby interpreter tries desperately to translate them into another language that has no frame of reference for them. As will often happen in such a situation, the original tone and flavor will be heavily muddled, if not lost in translation completely.
Take the main characters, for example. While the story features a myriad of wild animals, our protagonist, mentor, love interest, and villain are all lions, each with their own unique personalities and quirks. The distinct qualities of these characters come through very effectively in the original film, because the animators were given the freedom to humanize the characters’ faces and movements. The benevolence of Mufasa and the sinister silkiness of Scar come through brilliantly in the animation, precisely because the filmmakers are not limited by their commitment to realism.
In the new film, however, these characters aren’t allowed to emulate humans beyond the occasional extended blink. The actors do what they can, but, as it turns out, the physicality and facial tics of cats – even massive jungle cats – just aren’t that expressive. Suddenly, Mufasa’s nobility looks almost exactly like Scar’s seething hatred; in both cases, they read primarily as aloofness. Were Favreau and the animators not shackled to this goal of realism, I’m sure these characters could have really shined.
Over and over again, the filmmakers take the most memorable moments and characters from the original movie and drain them of everything that gave them life in the first place. The fascistic staging of “Be Prepared”, with its garish greens and harsh reds and jagged, Nuremberg-inspired cliffs jutting into the sky, has here been replaced with a vaguely conspiratorial tone set against gray foothills. Not only is this a step down from the original, but it so effectively robs the original number of any urgency or stylistic flourish that it becomes a complete non-event.
In the end, The Lion King proves to be an interesting experiment, but only in its accidental finding that realism, while often desired in film, isn’t a worthy goal in itself. It can undercut the inherent power of a story to try to bring it into our world, thus rendering it an exercise in pointlessness. And so, like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, Peter Jackson’s dalliance with high frame rates, the interactive movies of the 1990s, Ted Turner’s attempts to colorize classic black and white films, and many of the other stylistic, narrative, and technical experiments throughout film history, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King becomes the latest example of that old principle: Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.