Film

Disney Should Probably Have At Least Some Worries, ‘Cause ‘The Lion King’ Reviews Are Very Mixed

Not even Beyoncé has escaped some of the criticism.

The Lion King trailer reactions

Disney are currently in the process of working out the best way forward for their remake machine — do they depart from the source material, a la Dumbo, and give the audience a whole new experience, or do they remain slavishly shackled to the past, a la their forthcoming The Lion King, which is essentially a shot for shot remake of the original?

Indeed, that latter film is so beholden to the 1994 animated classic that it’s more a formal experiment than a ‘new’ movie. Starring a cast of everyone from Donald Glover to Beyonce Knowles herself, the CGI-saturated flick has almost no new scenes, save from one fresh Beyonce cut and a tiny bit more banter between Timon and Pumba.

But if Disney were looking to critics to tell them whether they should go the Dumbo or The Lion King route, well, they’re shit outta luck. Dumbo was largely dismissed by the critical establishment (save a few vocal detractors), and the early word on The Lion King is just as — if not ever-so-slightly more — mixed, with some calling it a flawed crowdpleaser, and others describing it as an outright disaster.

Let’s pick apart what the critics are saying, shall we?

Most Critics Agree: Photorealistic Lions Are Not Fun

All of the negative reviews of the film are uniquely savage in their own way (shout out to David Ehrlich of Indiewire, who variously describes the film as a “disaster”, a snuff film, and a “zombified digital clone”). But a lot of them share one common complaint — transforming the lively animated cast of the original into a bunch of glaring, photorealistic animals is a distinct mistake.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls the parade of hyperreal lions “eerily plausible”, but mourns all the things lost in moving from drawn wizardry to the work of computers. “I missed the simplicity and vividness of the original hand-drawn images,” he says, simply.

But even critics who have nicer things to say about the movie than Ehrlich and Bradshaw feel like its cutting edge visuals are a mixed bag. A. O. Scott of The New York Times reckons the film is filled with moments of such technological craft that they brought tears to his eyes (the moment he singles out involves Timon scratching his ear, which like, cute.)

But ultimately, even he feels like Disney have sacrificed heart and soul for CGI might. “It plays more like an especially glitzy presentation reel at a trade convention, with popular songs and high-end talent pushing an exciting new product that nobody is sure quite how to use,” Scott writes.

Then there’s the savagery of Matt Patches of Polygon. “There’s a tremendous amount of craft in The Lion King, and under the direction of Jon Favreau, a complete absence of art … The CG dust really looks like dust. The CG fur really looks like fur. If Earth transforms into a husk of its former self in the next 100 years, The Lion King will play an important historical role in our future.”

Ouch.

Everybody Loves The Cast, ‘Cause Of Course They Do

Just as most critics are unified in savaging the visuals, most are unified in praising the cast. Even Ehrlich’s review, which might be one of the most savage takedowns of a big studio tentpole in at least a few years, has nice things to say about Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, who take on Pumba and Timon respectively. “Seth Rogen’s carefree chortle and natural flair for self-deprecation make him the best possible Pumbaa, while Billy Eichner reveals his Broadway-worthy talents as the newly theatrical Timon,” he writes.

Patches is even more positive of the pair. “Eichner’s Timon is transcendent, popping up in the middle of the movie when all hope is lost and riffing with Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa like there’s no tomorrow,” he writes, arguing that the two friends pretty much save the movie from total disaster.

Of course, there’s only one name in the credits that most fans will be hoping gets singled out for praise — Beyoncé Knowles. But, sadly, nobody has much good to say about the singer’s turn as Nala, with most calling the part underwritten. “Not even she can rescue a three-dimensional creature from five or six lines of generic dialogue,” writes Ehrlich, while Scott kills her performance with kindness, calling it “O.K.”

Only Peter Debruge of Variety has some glowing things to say about the showing. “Pop goddess Beyoncé Knowles-Carter lends still more depth,” he writes, “conveying aspects of bravery and independence in Nala’s personality that weren’t there before.”

But even Debruge concedes that Beyoncé’s addition to the soundtrack, ‘Spirit’, is “largely unnecessary.”

Ooft. Wasting Beyoncé? That might be the biggest crime of all.

The Lion King hits Australian cinemas this Wednesday July 17.