‘The Lion King’ Review: Out of the Uncanny Valley

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    Forget the lions for a second. There are moments in The Lion King (spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the original, which…)—like the one where we follow a mouse scurrying from hiding place to hiding place, or a beetle flitting about—where, if you stop to think about how well-animated this whole thing is, you will lose your damn mind. At times, Disney’s narrowly-justifiable remake (the case for it, as far as anyone can tell, is merely “Beyoncé”) is an incredible technical achievement. We live in a world in which you can watch Planet Earth II in 4K ultra high-definition and be utterly stunned by real-life nature, and a computer-animated beetle is somehow still blowing me away.

    We might be a little too good at computers, though. Because, if The Lion King is any indication, you can have sumptuous, state-of-the-art technology capable of delivering breathtaking visuals, and still fundamentally fail at art. And while The Lion King is gorgeous, it is also artless, a slavish reproduction that only breaks from its predecessor to yawn and stretch its legs, and not to really show us anything new.

    Now we can talk about the lions. This is, in fact a movie about lions—a little lion cub blamed for his father’s death and exiled, only to return as an adult when his evil uncle leads the kingdom to ruin. If you want to know the biggest, most consistent problem The Lion King brushes up against, it’s that its lions look too real for their own good. It’s the opposite of the uncanny valley, a realism pursued to the point where it becomes difficult to express the emotion an animated feature thrives on, much less the kind of unreality a design probably should have in order to sell the fact that we are watching talking animals.

    You’d think it was something you could get used to, but this problem shows new sides of itself as the film goes on. The Lion King‘s musical numbers—some of the most vibrant and well-known songs in film—are also wonderfully choreographed in the original movie, with all sorts visually interesting and off-kilter imagery accompanying numbers like “Be Prepared” or “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.” 2019′s version, shackled by its realism, ditches almost anything resembling choreography in favor of having animals do what animals do, which is mostly just run around.

    Again: we might be a little too good at computers! 1994′s The Lion King was a showcase for the work of animators, of artists working in a medium eager to show off what that medium could do at the top of its game. It is stylistically malleable, able to hit up and down the emotional register from cartoonish Saturday morning frivolity to gravitas and sorrow.

    But with no real aesthetic sensibilities of its own, the technical mastery of the animators of 2019′s The Lion King are all put to replicating the real world, and while their work is commendable, it’s also plain. There is no room for animals to suddenly get bug-eyed in shock, to move in way inconsistent with anatomy, or to try patently impossible things like having a 400-pound lion attempt to swing on a vine. The very decision to have these photorealistic animals talk feels like a disservice to the animators’ work—look at Zazu’s beak! It’s so well-rendered, so very much like a real hornbill’s beak. Those, as you might guess, are not made for talking. It shows.