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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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The Lion King, Review: The Lions Sing

For a film production company that has been in the animation business for 90 years, and earned its initial popularity by creating Mickey Mouse, making a film, replete with state-of-the-art, photorealistic computer images of a host of animals and birds, has to be basic instinct. That it tells the story of lions, hyenas, vultures, and other creatures whose names one needs to look-up in Google, or Oxford or Cambridge or Merriam Webster dictionaries, that possess human instinct rather than animal instinct, is an art it has perfected over nine decades. Or has it?

Disney’s The Lion King, a remake of the 1994 adventure of the same name, and its 2019 avtaar, have some common names—James Earl Jones, Tim Rice, Elton John, Hans Zimmer—and the latter-day movie even has a similar beginning, but there many other differences. Jon Favreau did not direct that quarter-of-a-century ago edition, which was a money-spinner at the box-office. He’s been offered The Lion King because of his success with The Jungle Book (2016). And wait a minute: as many as 29 pen-pushers worked on the version released in the preceding millennium, while only one writer put his fingers to the keyboard in the 21st century vehicle. Obviously, too many cooks did not spoil the broth, then, while a solo writer has failed to deliver, now.

In the African savanna, which the lions rule as their Pridelands, and where homo sapiens’ existence is conspicuous by its absence, a cub is born to King Mufasa and his wife Sarabi. Mufasa holds him high, on display, as his subjects congregate below Pride Rock. He will inherit the office of king when he grows up, much to the delight of Zazu, the red-billed hornbill (Didn’t somebody call him a dodo? Or was that merely a simile?), and Rafiki, the wise mandrill, but to the chagrin of his paternal uncle, Scar, who was nursing ambitions of inheriting the throne. The young lion, Simba, idolises his father, Mufasa, who initiates him into the rules of good governance, but also longs to succeed him as King of the Pridelands.

On one occasion, his enthusiasm gets the better of him, and he ventures into forbidden territory, with his companion Nala, against the express warnings of his Dad. Were it not for the aerial reconnaissance of Zazu and the timely arrival of Mufasa, both would have become high-tea for the lowly hyenas of the highlands. Having learnt his lesson, Simba behaves himself and bides his time. Desperate to usurp the throne, his jealous uncle Scar-face (‘face’ is silent) initiates a series of events with the help of the hyenas, the sworn enemies of the lions, which lead to Mufasa's death, and Simba's exile.

Warned by Scar not to come back ever, Simba finds himself in a desert, and falls unconscious. He is about to be eaten by a flock (the correct word is any one out of kettle, committee or wake) of vultures. In the nick of time, he is saved by Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog pair, with a carefree lifestyle, and no particular home. Simba grows up in their company, amidst idyllic surroundings. Back home, Scar unleashes a reign of terror, with the help of the hyenas, attacking and devouring anything that moves. Sarabi and Nala, Simba’s childhood sweetheart, try and put up stiff resistance, but are no match for the scheming, unscrupulous, wicked, ruthless Czar (slip of the key). If only Simba were to return, they would beard the lion in his den. Lion Scar, that is.

Brenda Chapman, the script supervisor in 1994, is co-credited with the story, along with Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Enter Jeff Nathanson (Rush Hour sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), who has developed the new Lion King. Nathanson and director Jon Favreau were born one year and one week apart, so maybe it was destined in their stars that they would work together on this film. Not the best pairing, perhaps. They were 63 and 62 respectively when the film was made, and it is clear that it lacks the youthfulness and zeal that younger writers or directors might have imparted to it. Attempts to address the below 16 audience, who should have been prime targets, for an animation format, have not borne fruit. Both the theme and the treatment are mature and adult in nature.

Yes, the plethora of animals and birds and the National Geographic kind of landscapes and skies might make for an inherent identification with children, but then adults find such serenity equally soothing. What takes centre-stage is a tale of deceit, vendetta, stampedes, massacres, a female being forced into accepting her mate’s killer as her new consort, Simba, Nala and Zazu being chased across miles of territory followed my cameras in motion, and almost landing in the ravenous bellies of the hyenas, and so on. There is little to justify the choice of computer animation and talking animals to put across such a violent tale, which is like any human pot-boiler from mythology, often filmed as what is loosely and categorically called ‘costume drama’. Attempts to make it funny, with some dilatory dialogue and punitive puns, fall flat.

Wherever there are animals, there are bound to be welcome watering holes. What we find in abundance, in addition, are unwelcome loopholes. It is clear from the beginning that Simba is more keen on grabbing the royal rock than learning the ropes of benevolent kingship. How much of sympathy will such a protagonist draw? Scar is cut-up that Mufasa has sired a son. Is that a such a great surprise? Don’t animals have progeny? What was he miffed about?

Mufasa would never let Scar become king, in any case, he knew that all along. What about Scar having any mate or progeny? Why not? Villains have families too. Why does Mufasa put with Scar’s disobedience and insubordination? Merely because he is his brother? Is he such a fool that he cannot see through Scar’s machinations? How did Scar know that Mufasa will be hanging from a precipice, staring at certain death (in reverse angle), at the very exact moment when he wanted him dead?

Rafiki tells Simba that Mufasa is alive, and takes him on a wild goose chase halfway through the jungle before showing him his own reflection in a pond. How’s that for genius? Surely there was a puddle of water right where the two met, which would serve the purpose equally well. And what is Rafiki all about? He awaits a sign of the return of Simba, which reaches him in a ludicrously long-drawn way, and when it does, he extracts a stick, hidden in a tree trunk, which he has saved for the epic battle. Really! Scar, backed by hyenas, attacks and kills almost all prey, to show off his power and strength. Is he so stupid as not to realise that this decimation will mean eventual starvation for him and his minions, never mind the Mufasa family? Scar tells Simba that beyond the mountain is the elephants’ burial ground. However, when he goes there, he finds only hyenas, not a single elephant anywhere in sight.

Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Chef, The Jungle Book) may be Happy Hogan in the Iron Man saga, but he leaves us quite unhappy while watching the Lion Mane gaga. Sync is an issue, with mouths not matching the microphone voices in many scenes. There are very few close-ups. None of the voice artistes have done anything to write home about, except, to an extent, Florence Kasumba as Shenzi. In a chronicle manely about lions, there would necessarily be every type of roar, to be sure, and we are not disappointed there. Yet, all that is so predictable, isn’t it?

In parts, the narrative makes you feel that it is about the coming of age of the cub. That impression is dissipated when Simba becomes an adult, all too soon, in silhouette, against a globe (impressive shot), and the coming of age takes a giant leap forward. Instead of flexing his muscles and loins, Simba becomes a peacenik, a sort of wimp, chasing butterflies (well, they have no meat, so what is there to eat?), with two wise-cracking fellow animal (wise) crackers as soulmates.

It’s not all that bad, to be fair. Animals and birds move with great fluidity and amazing animal grace. Music by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator, Inception, Interstellar) is as evocative as this maestro has been making it sound in his much-appreciated assignments. Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs, though contextual and inspiring,  are a kitsch that just fails to jell with the goings-on, with odd rhymes and metres, like “presage” and a fixation for “wing” and “king”. Is age catching up with the 71 and 74 year-olds? Many songs are just about spoken like lines of dialogue, flatly delivered, making very little impact. Then there is this thing about lions singing. I may be nit-picking, but there is something weird about lions singing. Especially animated lions.

A lot of African-American actors have been retained to dub the voices, which makes sense in a primitive, African setting. As a corollary, they also sound slightly similar to each other.

Donald Glover as Simba

JD McCrary as young Simba.

Seth Rogen as Pumbaa

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar

Alfre Woodard as Sarabi

John Kani as Rafiki

John Oliver as Zazu

Billy Eichner as Timon

Shahadi Wright Joseph as young Nala

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala

Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre lend their voices to Shenzi, Kamari, and Azizi, the three spotted, vile hyenas, Scar's hoodlums. Florence delivers a key line, which embodies wisdom, “A hyena’s belly is never full.”

And oh yes, if you aren’t in the loop, you might not be aware, that since opening on Broadway in November 1997, The Lion King, with most of its music credited to Hans Zimmer, Tim Rice and Elton John, has become the most successful musical in history. It currently plays at the Minskoff Theatre, Times Square, New York.

Sadly, the 118-minute, really long, 2019 release, which has to be viewed with 3D glasses, shot in 4K, rated PG, film is not likely to garner accolades that compare favourably with its staged counterpart. Would the re-appearance of 1994er Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), as Zazu, conceived as a being who likes order and discipline, very British traits, to voice gems like “for king and country” and “I had a brother who thought he was a woodpecker,” have made any difference? Maybe. No way I can really tell.

Me, I cannot tell a dodo from a wood-pecker from a meerkat.

Rating: **

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJN6wsjjmPs

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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