Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
Maybe more on this later, but there's a post on here that I quite like comparing modern-Disney's photorealistic animation to a logical development of what Eisenstein had written on animism and animation from his own writings on Disney in the 1940s. I agree with the assessment, but only on the basis that that development was purely a logical, inevitable movement forward only in regards to the animation itself, not this particular film. The problem with the assessment regarding the film itself is that Disney merely places Lion King into concrete realism, rather than transforming it - so Lion King doesn't so much resemble a movie as much as an engine...interesting technically for a little bit, but it gets old fast, as it's a remake that's almost exactly the same as the original.
What Lion King shares with the far-superior Aladdin remake is that by placing the narrative into concrete realism, it makes the social dynamics considerably more direct and clearer - this works in Aladdin's favour (though it may have not been intentional given this film) but here it only makes the distinct conservatism of the original (and by extension, this) even clearer. It's about loss of power followed by regaining power, which is then connected to restoration of order - which is a classically insidious move in conservative art. What I didn't expect (and probably should have, lol) is that the move towards concrete realism also makes the violence far more intense than it was in the original, and within this context I found myself unnerved at the spectacle of the final set piece, while admittedly being impressed by it technically, since it's one of the rare actually expressive moments in the entire film.
This isn't helped by the padding out in runtime - whereas Aladdin managed to navigate this by including sequences which explicate on the characters world, Disney is too scared to mess with Lion King - so there are stretches where virtually nothing happens until returning to an identical retread of the original - which is also annoying because you're not just able to predict the entire film, but you can predict it to the point of exactness. And while all the subtext is absolutely inherent in the original, it's very easy to overlook it because of its speedy runtime - a less than 90 minute film designed for children. Because there's so much dead air in this version, you have more time to think about the dynamics you're seeing, and having my main realization of what's actually going on in this story in the middle of the final set-piece is actually kind of scary when you're watching a gigantic corporate product with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it and a gigantic distribution platform. If there's one positive I got out of this (minus some brief bursts of inspiration that are far too short) it's probably that at least Disney finally managed to annihilate my last semblances of one of the most insidious of all afflictions, nostalgia.
It is still impressive on a purely, visual (and that is completely surface almost pushed to its limits) level - but the problem here as well is that it's not technology that is innovative, but merely the best technology that money can buy. The "virtual world" that Disney keeps propping up the movie with (which James Cameron invented, lol) also backfires because of the films reticence to move beyond the original - if you're going to expand the world this much, why do only 6 characters have anything even remotely resembling agency? And even then, both because of that and because of its reliance on the original, the film feels like you're merely watching AI - not a bad thing in and of itself, but that it's AI without free will. By expanding the world this much while keeping to the core dynamics and trajectories of the original, there's the feeling that you're actually watching an unfinished film - even though that's not remotely the case. This also makes the character relationships absurd - you'd think they would open the door up for more character development given the expanded run time but its SO reliant on the original's beats that things like Simba and Nala reuniting and falling in love within seconds makes 0 sense.
The film is most impressive when it ever so briefly deviates from the original - almost entirely because of the laws of physics. The first sequence following the Circle of Life with the rat running around is impressive only because you cannot do that physically, and I'm similarly impressed with the brief montage of Simba's hair floating to Rafiki, carried by little bugs and other animals - why wasn't there more of this if you're going to make it so bound to gravity! This is why the direct callbacks to the original also don't work - Mufasa's death scene (which is otherwise one of the films most well constructed sequences) completely loses weight when it re-creates the famous zoom-out from Simba seeing Mufasa fall. The problem here (and this is one of the films core problems) is that you cannot recreate the physics of something animated within the physics of the natural - it's flatly contradictory to the most basic nature of animation in the first place, and this is even more confusing given that the rest of the sequence has it's own physical laws set up only to all together throw them aside for a nostalgia moment. In retrospect already I can possibly see the film going up slightly in my estimation on a re-watch because as I write this I realize that formally this is one of the films core issues, and there are a number of sequences that are able to hold their own, but only fall flat on comparison, and I'm curious to see why those actually do work.
The final set-piece itself is impressively constructed, but it's again the more obvious context that makes the whole thing kind of...ahh. One colleague mentioned that while Scar not being a gay villain is probably a good move for 2019, at least the viciousness made him fun - in retrospect Scar is actually the most agreeable character in the original, and by also removing any ideological subtext from his character yet having the subtext for the heroes remain exactly the same, Disney is actually telling on themselves without realizing it, and it isn't helped by the vaguely German romanticist imagery that starts to appear throughout the films final act. In part because Scar is now ideologically muddled, it's actually Simba that appears the more vicious of the two, and the subtext that's again more clear here than in the original makes the finale mildly disturbing to watch.
Also of course I have to admit that the critics who I mostly think are idiots were completely right about the expressionless-ness of the animals, and this is even more disappointing after having just rewatched Alita. Disney was out here thinking they could top Cameron but they ain't shit
Also - what a waste of the greatest modern comedian!