Lion King remake: Much ado about nothing

Tuesday August 13 2019


Beyoncé. She voices Nala in 'The Lion King'. Her song, 'Spirit', which was included in the remake is a much welcome improvement to the film. PHOTO | WALT DISNEY 

By The EastAfrican

n 1994, Walt Disney created an animated film that was not only entertaining, but educative and emotional.

So good was the film that it became a classic. Using the animal kingdom, an outstanding cast of actors and an unforgettable music score, the creators set out to tell a story of a family feud, love, death and leadership.

The Lion King was unrivalled. A quarter of a century later, on July 17, Disney released a live action remake of the Lion King.

The idea was to tap into the nostalgia of the movie enthusiasts who watched and loved the original Lion King, using modern CGI technology and celebrity actors like James Earl Jones (who plays Mufasa in both the 1994 and 2019 versions), Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Seth Rogen, Donald Glover, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

Impressive is the notable inclusion and performances of South African actor John Kani as Rafiki and Uganda’s Florence Kasumba as Shenzi, the leader of the pack of hyenas.

Whether or not this new take on the classic animated film is a success has been a matter of debate. And with good cause.


Same jungle, same animals

There is nothing new in the 2019 Lion King version. No new thought, imagination or forward thinking has been put into the remaking of this film.

If you have watched the old one, there is no need to watch the remake. Shot after shot and scene after scene, the remake is a copy and paste job that makes watching the new version very predictable. It borders on laziness on the part of the producers.

Perhaps it was intentional of them not wanting to tamper with an already perfect storyline. If it is not broken, why fix it, right? Well, if that is the case, then what is the point of viewers spending money to watch something that they probably already have a copy of at home?

Then there is the issue of the photorealistic adaptation of the film.

Right from the moment the film trailers hit the internet, we all knew that Disney was going to push the envelope with their amazing technology that brings out the animal cast and their setting to look as real as possible. If anything, there is no denying the fact that this approach achieved its purpose.

The animals look as real as they could ever get. The opening shot of the sunrise is a thing of wonder and the wildebeest migration scene can only be upstaged by the real life viewing of the event at the Mara River in the Masai Mara.

This works to improve the film as much as it works to undermine it. On one hand, the film is stunning. And if we are to evaluate it solely on its visual technique and believability, then the 2019 Lion King adaptation wins hands down. But then as it solves one problem, it creates another, arguably bigger problem; It lacks soul.

The 1994 Lion King was produced in 2D, which worked well with the telling of the story. The animals had expressions on their faces, and the production benefited immensely from it. But the realism in the 2019 version does nothing to bring out the expressions and emotions of the characters. They are nothing but stoic creatures with the expressive capabilities of a couch.

And let us not even get started on characters like Zazu, Timon, Pumba and Rafiki. Their cheekiness is lost in the remake and their personalities are only saved by the brilliance of the actors who voice the characters.

In fact, were it not for the brilliance of Jones and Ejiofor, both the characters of Mufasa and Scar would have been extensively diminished.

I would be remiss to talk about this film without addressing two emergent issues. The first one is that of Beyoncé's involvement.

I do not want to speak to her voice acting because the less said about it, the better. I am talking about her musical involvement; where she is actually talented enough to be involved in.

Beyonce's song, Spirit, which was included in the remake is a much welcome improvement to the film. The problem is that it is alleged that the visual concept of the song's video was ‘‘stolen’’ from South African visual artist Yannick Ilunga. The similarities between Yannick’s La Maison Noir and Beyoncé’s Spirit are too fantastic to be a mere coincidence.

What's more, Spirit was part of an album called The Gift that Beyoncé released as a sort of gift, a love letter if you will, to Africa; it was part of her Lion King package. And so one wonders how one can gift Africa by stealing from it.

But then again, if you consider the fact that the Lion King itself was a concept copied from Kimba The White Lion by Japanese creator Osamu Tezuka, then you cannot fault Beyoncé for acting in the, spirit of the franchise.

And that's not all. The Gift was Beyoncé’s Lion King album, featuring a number of collaboration tracks done with West African musicians. Fair enough. But didn’t anyone tell her that the inspiration for the Lion King animation was East Africa? There is Mt Kilimanjaro, the wildebeest migration, the use of Swahili-derived names such as Shenzi, Simba, Rafiki and the main soundtrack, Hakuna Matata. So why sideline East Africans from the album? Whatever her reason, it is definitely not for lack of talent in East Africa.

The other emergent issue revolves around the animal kingdom portrayed in the Lion King and its real life counterpart. Here is a not-so-fun fact: When the first version of the Lion King was made in 1994, there were about 100,000 lions in Kenya.

By the time the 2019 remake was being released, there were only 2,000 lions in Kenya. Now they are an endangered species.

As we speak today, the Mara ecosystem is rapidly changing for the worse. Meaning the wildebeest migration that has been a catalyst for tourism for both Kenya and Tanzania is under threat. And there are concerns that if this trend continues, we may not see herds of migrating wildebeest again for a long time.

The release of the 2019 Lion King has provided the perfect opportunity for us to have a conversation about how to sustain the environment in which our wildlife live.

Our cultural heritage is under threat from climate change and human interference; let's not allow that opportunity to pass us by.

But if it does, chance are, the next time another Lion King film is made, it will be the same as watching Jurassic Park. A fictional reminder of what once was. Because we will not have lions, and if perchance we do, we most certainly won’t have the wildebeest migration, in which case Mufasa, if he will even exist, will probably not die.

So much for the great circle of life.