Lion King 2019

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Wow. The new version of the Lion King is technically brilliant, and story-wise mostly unnecessary (but see below for an exception). It is a mostly beat-for-beat retelling of the 1994 animated version. The graphics are breathtaking, and they show how far computer-generated imagery has come. For a measly million dollar per minute of film you can get a photorealistic animal movies. Because of the photorealism, it also loses some of the charm and the emotions that the animated version carried - in the original the animals were much more anthropomorphic, and the dancing was much more exaggerated, which the new version gave up. This is most noticeable in the song scene for "I can't wait to be king", which used to be a psychedelic, color shifted sequence with elephants and tapirs and giraffes stacked upon each other, replaced by a much more realistic sequence full of animals and fast cuts that simply looks amazing (I never was a big fan of the psychedelic music scenes that were so frequent in many animated movies, so I consider this a clear win).

I want to focus on the main change, and it is about Scar. I know the 1994 movie by heart, and Scar is its iconic villain, one of the villains that formed my understanding of a great villain. So why would the largest change be about Scar, changing him profoundly for this movie? How risky a choice in a movie that partly recreates whole sequences shot by shot?

There was one major criticism about Scar, and that is that he played with stereotypical tropes of gay grumpy men, frustrated, denied, uninterested in what the world is offering him, unable to take what he wants, effeminate, full of cliches.

That Scar is gone, replaced by a much more physically threatening scar, one that whose philosophy in life is that the strongest should take what they want. Chiwetel Ejiofor's voice for Scar is scary, threatening, strong, dominant, menacing. I am sure that some people won't like him, as the original Scar was also a brilliant villain, but this leads immediately to my big criticism of the original movie: if Scar was only half as effing intelligent as shown, why did he do such a miserable job in leading the Pride Lands? If he was so much smarter than Mufasa, why did the thriving Pride Lands turn into a wasteland, threatening the subsistence of Scar and his allies?

The answer in the original movie is clear: it's the absolutist identification of country and ruler. Mufasa was good, therefore the Pride Lands were doing well. When Scar takes over, they become a wasteland. When Simba takes over, in the next few shots, they start blooming again. Good people, good intentions, good outcomes. As simple as that.

The new movie changes that profoundly - and in a very smart way. The storytellers at Disney really know what they're doing! Instead of following the simple equation given above, they make it an explicit philosophical choice in leadership. This time around, the whole Circle of Life thing, is not just an Act One lesson, but is the major difference between Mufasa and Scar. Mufasa describes a great king as searching for what they can give. Scar is about might is right, and about the strongest taking whatever they want. This is why he overhunts and allows overhunting. This is why the Pride Lands become a wasteland. Now the decline of the Pride Lands make sense, and also why the return of Simba and his different style as a king would make a difference. The Circle of Life now became important for the whole movie, at the same time tying with the reinterpretation of Scar, and also explaining the difference in outcome.

You can probably tell, but I am quite amazed at this feat in storytelling. They took a beloved story and managed to improve it.

Unfortunately, the new Scar also means that the song Be Prepared doesn't really work as it used to, and thus the song also got shortened and very much changed in a movie that became much longer otherwise. I am not surprised, they even wanted to remove it, and now I understand why (even though back then I grumbled about it). They also removed the Leni Riefenstahl imaginary from the new version which was there in the original one, which I find regrettable, but obviously necessary given the rest of the movie.

A few minor notes.

The voice acting was a mixed bag. Beyonce was surprisingly bland (speaking, her singing was beautiful), and so was John Oliver (singing, his speaking was perfect). I just listened again to I can't wait to be king, and John Oliver just sounds so much less emotional than Rowan Atkinson. Pity.

Another beautiful scene was the scene were Rafiki receives the massage that Simba is still alive. In the original, this was a short transition of Simba ruffling up some flowers, and the wind takes them to Rafiki, he smells them, and realizes it is Simba. Now the scene is much more elaborate, funnier, and is reminiscent of Walt Disney's animal movies, which is a beautiful nod to the company founder. Simba's hair travels with the wind, birds, a Giraffe, an ant, and more, until it finally reaches the Shaman's home.

One of my best laughs was also due to another smart change: in Hakuna Matata, when they retell Pumbaa's story (with an incredibly cute little baby Pumbaa), Pumbaa laments that all his friends leaving him got him "unhearted, every time that he farted", and immediately complaining to Timon as to why he didn't stop him singing it - a play on the original's joke, where Timon interjects Pumbaa before he finishes the line with "Pumbaa! Not in front of the kids.", looking right at the camera and breaking the fourth wall.

Another great change was to give the Hyenas a bit more character - the interactions between the Hyena who wasn't much into personal space and the other who rather was, were really amusing. Unlike with the original version the differences in the looks of the Hyenas are harder to make out, and so giving them more personality is a great choice.

All in all, I really loved this version. Seeing it on the big screen pays off for the amazing imagery that really shines on a large canvas. I also love the original, and the original will always have a special place in my heart, but this is a wonderful tribute to a brilliant movie with an exceptional story.

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