I should start by saying I don’t feel great about this. I didn’t go into Jon Favreau‘s remake of The Lion King expecting to audibly chuckle as a boy-lion watches his father fall to his death in a stampede of wildebeest. That’s not a prediction you just make walking into a theater. There’s nothing inherently humorous about a lion falling off a cliff, or patricide, or fratricide, or rampaging stampedes of wildebeest. I should also mention that I believe this same scene, as depicted in the original 1994 Lion King, directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, is one of the most tragic moments in all of film, a scene that taught a young me about loss, about unfairness, and quite frankly about the cold finality of death itself. It’s at least 20% of the reason I go to therapy today, 25% if you factor in the odd confusing sexiness of Jeremy Irons voicing an evil lion. This is all to say that it’s with a heavy heart and regretful mind that I must report the scene in The Lion King (2019) in which Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is betrayed by his brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and falls to his death is really, really funny.
Look, I’m sorry. Let me explain.
There’s been a lot of hullabaloo over people calling the new Lion King “live-action” because it is technically false. There’s not a single flesh-and-blood human or physical set in sight over the film’s runtime, but woo boy it’s occasionally hard to tell. Favreau and Co. put those Disney billions to good use, implementing some truly never-before-seen CGI tech to create a cast of photorealistic animals that move across a living, breathing Serengeti. Remember those “character posters”? They looked like Disney paid a brave photographer to sneak into the jungle and snap a photo directly in an actual-ass lion’s face. The goal was to make it feel like you’re watching real-life animals, and that goal is admirably met.
And look, I’ve binged enough Planet Earth to know that animals are gorgeous, mesmerizing things to gawk at for a few hours. But the second one of those furry bastards opens its mouths and starts singing a jaunty tune about how impatient it is to be king, I’ll know something has gone severely wrong with either my edible dosage or reality itself. That disconnect between sight and sound runs through the new Lion King turns the endearing into the disturbing. The beauty of the hand-drawn animation of the 1994 Lion King—other than the fact the artists were allowed to use shades of something other than dusty browns and yellows—is that the characters emote. Scar sneers. Timon and Pumbaa guffaw and belt songs from the belly. Rafiki’s jaw and mouth work overtime like a madman. The eyebrow work across the board is out of this world and half those animals don’t even have eyebrows. The faces aren’t realistic, and they’re definitely not relatable, but the emotions are. That’s key.
In comparison, watch the faces in the new Lion King; the stay locked in (very realistic looking!) rictus while Beyonce or Donald Glover‘s voices work the mouth like some hellish ventriloquist act. Imagine if a person invited you to watch an exact scene-for-scene production of The Lion King performed strictly by their taxidermy collection. Now imagine that person is the Walt Disney Company and that production cost $250 million. It’s weird. The whole thing is weird!
Which brings us, finally, back to Mufasa’s death, which takes place not in a gorge but deep in the Uncanny Valley. The scene plays out pretty much beat-for-beat identically to the original film. After saving his son Simba from the stampede, Mufasa clings to the edge of a cliff with Scar standing above him. Scar snarls “long live the king”, claws his brother’s paws, and Mufasa flies backward to the chaos below. It’s sad. It’s objectively sad. But I just cannot stress enough that what you are watching at this moment, as the music dramatically swells and time slows down, is the most detail-for-detail, feature-for-feature, hair-for-exact-hair realistic-looking CGI lion you’ve ever seen in your life flailing through the air as he yells with the extremely human baritone bass voice of James Earl Jones. It’s a three-second shot that cracks your mind and sense of theater decorum like a Lovecraft story. It’s not ha-ha funny, really. It’s someone ripped their pants at the funeral funny. You know you shouldn’t laugh because ugh that lion cub is literally watching his father die but come on. That lion is yelling like he’s people. It’s impossible to suspend disbelief when the photorealistic animation makes you stay firmly within the real world. So instead…ya laugh.
The immediate aftermath, where Simba tries and fails to revive his dad, is still upsetting because I’m not a complete soulless monster, but also because young actor JD McCrary is fantastic. But it’s not sad in any way that the original version is not. If anything, I realized that any sadness I felt watching that scene in 2019 had been coded into me since 1994. Like everything in this update, any genuine emotion in the moment was actually earned 25 years ago. The original version is such a tragically beautiful piece of art that it sticks with you for decades. This new Lion King is shined to such a glossy sheen that nothing really sticks at all.