Disney has not been left wanting for cash in 2019. On the other hand, it’s been a rough year for them vis-a-vis their increasingly divisive output of “live action” remakes. Dumbo was curiously devoid of director Tim Burton’s signature personality, and this summer’s Aladdin is an unmitigated disaster while The Lion King barely gets by on the enduring charms of a tale as old as Shakespeare. Not exactly the triumphant home-run they were hoping for in the press, though I’m quite certain last weekend’s coffers will have washed away any doubt on the studio’s part. Jon Favreau’s photo-real animated film is a few steps above Guy Ritchie’s kitschy fantasy, and they’re both a sign of creative apathy at the Mouse House, Marvel and Pixar not included.
Despite being cut from the same lazy studio cloth, Aladdin and The Lion King 2019 are quite different. The former is actual live action with stage production values, where every garish set and green screen background is more akin to a made-for-TV movie than a 200-million dollar blockbuster. Any silver lining stems from boisterous turns by Will Smith and Naomi Scott, both of whom give it their all and bring something new to the table, however briefly. The latter is animated “live action,” a nearly shot-for-shot remake whose primary saving grace is the sheer scale of its game-changing effects, from the biggest lion to the smallest blade of grass. Both have their moments, Lion King more so, and both are creatively bankrupt. In the case of Favreau’s picture, there’s at least a semblance of directorial effort on display, whereas Guy Ritchie’s guiding hand is barely noticeable, subject to the whims of a studio and story that requires absolute fealty to brand management.
Beyond the aforementioned Smith as a wily genie and Scott as a newly empowered Jasmine, Ritchie cast Mena Massoud as the titular character, a young actor of considerable charisma but limited talent at this stage of his career. As conniving Jafar, Marwan Kenzari gives an all-time bad performance, hamming it up like Dracula in 2006’s campy, ill-fated Van Helsing flop. Musical numbers lack pomp and energy, with Jasmine’s original number the only showstopper, a banger of a song performed passionately by Scott in a single take. Mostly, Aladdin is simply an eyesore, like an over-lit and under-produced play you might find at Disneyland, right down to plastic-looking sets and props and occasionally chintzy costumes. Fantasy or not, it’s difficult to buy into a “magical kingdom” set in the middle east (possible during the Mughal Empire) where everyone, peasants and patrolmen included, are fairly well-groomed and donning spotless clothing. Again, Jasmine and Genie are the lone exceptions, both outfitted with exuberantly detailed dresses or tunics. They’re exquisite, even if they are photographed in soap-o-vision, digital photography so flat and fast (must’ve used a higher frame rate for a few scenes) the film looks like a daytime soap.
When tackling Lion King, Favreau had many assets at his disposal to prevent an Aladdin-sized disaster, namely Chiwetel Ejiofor who is more than up to the task of following in Jeremy Irons’ footsteps as the dastardly uncle Scar. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner provide lively comic relief, with a few ad-libs of their own that couldn’t be found in 1994. However, it’s unfortunate they felt the need to keep so many fart jokes in tact. It’s as if they were so preoccupied with preserving the original beat for beat they forgot the old adage that no movie is perfect, even the classics. More than anything, the redo benefits from truly awe-inspiring effects, the kind that’ll make you question the future of acting, for a moment anyway. Then you realize the inherent flaw in photo-real animated lions and hyenas and baboons, particularly when they’re singing and frolicking like the anthropomorphized creatures they are: there’s a disconnect between the characters’ behavior and their expressionless animal faces. Without animation that’s, you know, meant to look like animation, you’re left with real lions speaking Shakespearean pablum without any visible feeling or ferocity. Some of it comes down to voice acting, and Donald Glover and Beyonce are clearly not cut out for it. Even the great James Earl Jones seems to be phoning it in this time, though who could blame him. Favreau’s images and Hans Zimmer himself are doing most of the legwork emotionally, that Mufasa theme still as wrenching as it was in the 90’s.
The Lion King proves itself unnecessary, no matter the work put in by clearly gifted visual effects artists. The strength of the story prevents Favreau and co. from totally succumbing to creative rot. And Aladdin isn’t so much a lesser endeavor in that arena as it is a poorly made film altogether. From bad dialogue to bad acting, one or two grace notes cannot salvage a natural-born stinker. Guy Ritchie and Jon Favreau are both talented filmmakers with still-bright futures ahead of them, but only one of them escaped Disney’s creative vacuum by the skin of their teeth. Maybe the Mouse House will return to great heights once they’ve regurgitated a few more of these. Eventually, they’ll get it out of their system. One can only hope, right?
The Lion King: B-