“Beautiful but soulless,” writes one reviewer of the film.
When the first tweets from film critics after the Los Angeles premiere of The Lion King started rolling in, a pattern quickly emerged. It’s a visual delight! A technical marvel! A technological masterpiece! Tweet after tweet praised the imagery of the film but there wasn’t much about the emotional impact of this 25-year-old story that we already know packs a heck of a wallop. (For many millennials, that one scene—you know which one—is one of our earliest memories of a film that made us sob.)
The reviews that are now in confirm what those initial tweets seemed to get at: the original Lion King worked because those hand-drawn animals could be given a wide range of emotions—glee, fear, grief—that brought them to life in an intensely touching, relatable way. In this photorealistic version rendered by CGI, those intense emotions get traded for a more realistic portrayal of animals, which, lets face it, can’t really emote all that much. The older animation also allowed for a greater suspension of disbelief: we know elephants, giraffes, wildebeest and lions aren’t really throwing down together at dance parties in the jungle, which is why we love watching them do it in all their wild, multi-coloured, silly glory on screen. In the new Lion King, instead of animals stacked on top of each other, swaying to the beat of drums, or prancing over a bridge, heads nodding in unison, you apparently get what essentially looks like a Nat Geo doc. As AA Dowd at AV Club put it, the “technological achievement of the movie” is also “its great miscalculation, its fundamental folly.” Stephanie Zacharek at TIME magazine put it more bluntly, calling it “beautiful but soulless.”
Read on for what critics thought of the film, which hits theatres this weekend.
“[Jon] Favreau has likened the process of making this film to restoring an architectural landmark, but at the end of the day, he’s merely gentrified it… This soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”
“The new Lion King gains in shock and awe while losing in character and wit… Basically, this new Lion King sticks very closely to the original version, and in that sense it’s of course watchable and enjoyable. But I missed the simplicity and vividness of the original hand-drawn images. The circle of commercial life has given birth to this all-but-indistinguishable digiclone descendant.”
“Disney put these filmmakers and this cast in a room with that much money and that much time, and the best they could do was a basically fine but markedly inferior recreation of an old movie? Really?”
“Like too many of these recent remakes of the Disney animated library, the emphasis is on “realism” at the expense of entertainment value… That sets the tone for the movie as a whole, where almost every line of comparatively colourful dialogue, every moment of spur-of-the-moment wit and every moment of comparatively devilish behaviour is ironed out for the most straight-faced or “honourable” delivery.”
“There’s no sense of wonder in this new Lion King—its most visible attribute is ambition. It works hard for the money. Chiefly, yours.”
“There’s almost nothing recognizably human in The Lion King, which labours under the bizarre misconception that anyone needed a photorealistic take on the Shakespearean struggle between talking, singing lions. Joyless, artless, and maybe soulless, it transforms one of the most striking titles from the Mouse House vault into a very expensive, star-studded Disney Nature film.”