It is still the “Summer of Disney” at movie theaters everywhere, and we’re seeing our share of new or re-imagined Disney stories. When considering why they seem so intent on remaking old classics, often morphing from animation to either 3D or live action, I considered an event in my own life. Skip the next five (red) paragraphs if you don’t care to read my thought provoking analogy.
In high school I was the quiet kid in the back of the classroom who dreaded being called on - a virtually unknown student even by year’s end. As such, during my senior year English class following a segment on Shakespeare, we were given the challenge of a final project on any topic the Bard leveraged in the plays we studied. We could act out a scene – eee gads! – write and read a poem to the class – yikes!, write a paper or make a movie. Wait, what?
I chose to make a movie on the topic of “death,” since it factors prominently in Romeo and Juliet, and, well, just about any of Shakespeare’s works. My father died the year before, so it was morbidly therapeutic. Alas, poor Yorick, I knew some stuff about the topic first hand. I’ll skip the production and scheduling details of my filmmaking debut, and cut to the showing of my masterwork on the last day of high school. Keep in mind this was 1972. I used a Super 8 movie camera and an audiocassette recorder to get the job done. Mine was the last project shared that day, and we very nearly ran out of time with no next class for carryover. I was stressed, having worked for weeks with a manual film splicer, adjusting timing. Frantically working to thread the film into a clunky Bell & Howell projector I lugged to school on the bus, queuing the tape player with a poor quality external speaker for my audio track, I nodded to the teacher to shut off the lights.
Four minutes later, the short film ended to applause just as the bell rang on my final English class of my final semester. The teacher approached me, swimming upstream toward the back of the class amid the excited chaos of classmates chattering about summer vacation, just hours away. They said their goodbyes to the teacher, who was beaming.
“I can’t give you any better than an A Plus,” he apologized. I was grateful he hadn’t asked me for my name. He was at a loss for words, but those he spoke were effusive. So this point of recounting this fond memory is, as technologies rapidly changed through the years I periodically considered making the movie again with modern editing methods. But ultimately it was an entirely worthless collage of deathly images that really had no audience outside of 7thperiod English.
But the people at Disney think back too, and designers no doubt get really jazzed about re-creating classics such as the originally hand-drawn Lion King using 3D editing tools like the complex and expensive Maya software used for the 2019 reincarnation just released.
Director Jon Favreau really knows his stuff, which is kind of an obvious statement, but he learned a lot from making The Jungle Book, and freely admits that it was a learning experience that taught him about optimizing different “lighting” angles within a virtual environment on things like – well, Lion fur.
If you grew up with the 1994 version of The Lion King, or watched your kids grow up with it, you no doubt have fond memories of the story, its lessons, the clever animated characters that act it out, and the academy award winning music written by Elton John and Tim Rice.
The 2019 version of The Lion King is not live action, but you’ll swear it’s real. Computer animation has become so photo-realistic, beginning-to-end, that you forget to marvel at the texture and movement of muscles beneath fur and feathers. Water rippling, splashing and falling is no longer a one-off showcase of a multimedia designer’s best effort – the whole film is a showcase. There are no doubt shortcuts used to capture and template physical characteristics and movements of the many animals in The Lion King. After all, this is the age of digital image libraries. But instead of using the software to have the animals do things they can’t do in nature, the goal here was to have them perform in the most lifelike manner possible. And there are so many animals – you know the scene where they gather around Pride Rock to view baby Simba as he’s held up by Rafiki for all to see? There is scene after scene where so much is going on, layer upon layer in a Noah’s Ark of African species, bowing and trumpeting to welcome the future king, that you feel the need to watch it again and again.
James Earl Jones returns (his voice) as Mufasa, the only carryover from twenty-five years ago. As is usual with Disney, all the latest pop stars and personalities of the moment are lined up behind the characters. I honestly wish they wouldn’t do that. Does Beyonce have to be in everything? And I found it distracting to have Seth Rogan show up yet again with his Pumbaa voice. But then, he is the human embodiment of a warthog, so you can’t fault Disney entirely. But some of the best voices are often those you don’t recognize. Still, in Disney's defense, many years from now, the stars will be forgotten but the voices will live on, much like Edward Everett Horton (Fractured Fairy Tales), Paul Frees (Bullwinkle characters) and Daws Butler (Yogi Bear and others.)
The story is familiar and the music was not tampered with – in fact it has been produced with more conventional orchestration when compared with the original, more synthetic instruments. And one fun tribute came when Timon and Pumbaa began to launch into the Beauty and the Beast song, “Be Our Guest,” which was promptly cut short. It’s a nice little Disney-within-Disney nod.
The original animated film was rated G. This time around, the rating has been upped to PG, no doubt due to the intensity of animal fights and killing, though blood was nowhere to be seen. In fact, some of the major conflicts, especially on a cliff against a background of raging fire are so intense and the hyenas are so numerous and sinister I’d be reluctant to take a very small child to see this.
The Lion King (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG.
Shoud I see this movie?