Boy is it hard to talk about the “Virtual Reality Digital Film” of The Lion King without acknowledging the splendour of the 1994 version. Hand-drawn in the middle of Disney’s Renaissance, it is a compelling watch a quarter century on for its beauty, humour and triumphant storytelling.
That film both enables, and hinders, Jon Favreau’s affair which seems to be two different films in one.
My favourite parts featured bright colours, funny characters – Seth Rogen’s Warthog and Billy Eichner’s meerkat Timon are excellent – and jaunty tunes. This half of the film is reminiscent of talking animal classics such as Babe or Peter Rabbit. It’s so wacky to see a life-like animal talk, if they are doing comedy it is easier to swallow.
When the film has to tell an epic Shakespearean tale of a King (James Earl Jones reprising his role of Mufasa), his spurned brother (Scar voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the rightful heir Simba (JD McCrary as Young Simba, Donald Glover as older Simba), the new edition veers into murky territory – literally.
Whereas the 1994 version had the gift of drawings done by hand to soften the harsh tones, Favreau’s update utilises cutting edge technology that at times feels alien, detracting from the spirit of each animal’s character.
It’s a similar feel to when a government department creates a video to show how future citizens will look as they go about their lives in a future world, the digital technology generates automaton-like entities with an unreal sheen eliminating distinguishing features that would otherwise allow every character to project their own personality to us.
The phrase “Uncanny Valley” is going be thrown around A LOT with this film as the creatures can be unsettling when they don’t quite look or behave as we might expect from a lifetime of incredible footage of animals in the wild courtesy of Sir David Attenborough and his army of lenses. A lack of ripple in flesh or feathers or whiskers or movement seems more jarring than it does with cel animation – a warmer technique offering a more readily digested suspension of disbelief that invites us to embrace an element of fantasy. These creatures seem so real, yet are not, so to my eyes don’t appear quite right.
Perhaps I am overthinking it, but as the same week marks a huge milestone of 50 years on from the Moon landing, a truly incomprehensible feat achieved with analogue technology, this fresh milestone in digital film-making may mark a turning point where audiences either embrace, or reject, an AI-based future.
3 Stars – “You Can’t Beat The Original”