As I mentioned in one of our recent podcast episodes, I had the opportunity to attend The Lion King remake in theater with my family. While I don't normally have terribly high expectations for any cartoon remakes, Aladdin made me think that Disney might have come up with a workable formula. If they have found some magic formula, though, it certainly wasn't employed in this production. Let me start by saying the CGI technology is absolutely phenomenal. The animals and the scenery are incredibly photo-realistic, and you might forget the entire world was rendered inside a computer - or rather, lots of them. But that's actually part of the reason this film under-delivers for me.
Unlike humans, animals don't have the eyebrows, lips and related facial muscles to make a range of recognizable expressions. As a human, I expect to see certain reactions on a characters face when they are mad, or sad, or happy. This was done quite well in the original movie and served to enhance the emotion in the voice acting. But Disney went so photo-realistic with these characters in the remake, that they can't make those expressions. As a result, the viewer is left taking emotional cues solely from the accompanying voice acting. In no scene is the lack of human expression so noticeable as the Mufasa death scene (spoiler alert, kind of).
This is not to say the voice acting fell short, overall. The studio brought James Earl Jones back to reprise his role as Mufasa; Donald Glover to voice the adult Simba; Beyoncé as the adult voice of Nala; John Oliver as Zazu; Seth Rogen for Pumbaa - the list goes on. The talent was certainly there. The voice acting was respectable. I might even venture to say they tried too hard in some cases to convey that emotion (Mufasa death scene... posthumous spoiler alert, again). But the whole effort stills falls short for me, because the characters faces don't reflect the way they ostensibly feel. It makes it difficult to invest in the moment - or care at all, if I'm being honest.
That brings me to the second issue with this film: Almost nothing has changed, except where it was necessary to make a character look more like its real animal counterpart. It's not just that the story is almost identical. It's not just that the lines are eerily similar. It's not just that the setting is the same. It's so similar to the original film that even the camera angles are going to look familiar to the viewer. Sure, they attempted to throw in some new songs and musical scores. And they did revamp a couple of scenes. But it seems like the studio set out to replicate the original film as much as possible. And while they were certainly successful in that goal - forgiving the emotionless animal faces for a moment - it seems that the only solid accomplishment in this remake was proving they could tackle the photo-realistic rendering challenges.
So, great job. You nailed that piece of it. Pat yourself on the back. Put it in your toolkit for some future live action movie that needs photo-realistic scenery and animals to enhance the story telling. But please, for the love of cinema: no more emotionally-stunted, photo-realistic animal movie remakes. Thank you, kindly.