Film reviews: The Lion King | Tell it to the Bees | Gwen | Varda by Agnés

The Lion King, featuring the voices of John Oliver as Zazu and JD McCrary as Young Simba PIC: � 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The Lion King, featuring the voices of John Oliver as Zazu and JD McCrary as Young Simba PIC: � 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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The pride of Disney Animation, The Lion King has been remade virtually frame for frame, but the CGI virtuosity dilutes some of the artistic sparkle of the hand-drawn original writes Alistair Harkness

The Lion King (PG) ***

Tell it to the Bees (15) *

Gwen (15) **

Varda by Agnés (15) ****

Unlike the other films in Disney’s current onslaught of animation remakes (already this year we’ve had Dumbo and Aladdin, with Mulan still to come and The Little Mermaid just announced), the new version of The Lion King has no “live action” stars in front of the camera. The 1994 original – the high point of the Disney Animation renaissance of the early 1990s and the studio’s last genuinely great traditionally hand-drawn film) – was an all animal, African-set adventure and so is this new version, which features almost beat-for-beat the same plot, the same charmingly ear-wormy songs and even some of the same camera shots. What’s new – aside from most of the vocal talent and the odd song – is the photo-real CGI cast. Looking like they’ve pounced, flown and crawled out of a David Attenborough documentary, Simba and co have been digitally rendered with uncanny verisimilitude — something that helps offset the unavoidable anthropomorphism that comes when making any fable with an animal cast required to emote and talk like humans.

Whether it’s worth all this effort is another question entirely. The seamlessness of the approach makes it easy to forget the technological wonders on display, but this quest for photographic realism also dilutes some of the artistic sparkle of Disney’s more traditionally animated films in a way that wasn’t evident in director Jon Favreau’s previous CGI re-do of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Combined with the minimal story revisions, this often makes the new film feel like an elaborate act of cinematic tracing, with one exception. When Simba’s villainous Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) assumes control of Pride Rock and plunges the world into darkness – destroying in the process the delicate ecosystem kept in place by Simba’s father Mufasa’s “Circle of Life” philosophy (James Earl Jones once again voices Mufasa) — the film suddenly feels eerily redolent of the current precarious state of the world, especially when Scar lets a self-serving pack of hyenas run amok.

Mostly, though, this is a cheerful nostalgia simulator for parents who want to let their kids experience the film they remember in a format they’ll appreciate and understand.

To this end, it’s an effective enough copy, though it does also underline the value of casting big name stars who can actually sing, as Donald Glover (who voices the grown-up Simba) and Beyoncé (cast as his childhood friend Nala) most assuredly can, over those who can’t, such as Seth Rogen, who voices beloved warthog Pumbaa and absolutely butchers Hakuna Matata.

In Tell it to the Bees, a shy young boy who’s bullied at school, disowned by his father and feels stigmatised by rumours surrounding his mother’s sexuality, discovers he has a superhuman ability to make bees swarm around and attack his enemies at will. OK, not really, but the ludicrous finale of this unintentionally campy film about a scandalous lesbian love affair in 1950s Scotland does feature a version of the just-described scene, which makes it more fun to imagine its narrator’s childhood reminiscences as a lame superhero origins story than taking this clunkily written, shakily acted and drearily directed melodrama as seriously as it wants us to. As a Scottish doctor returning to her hometown following her father’s death, Anna Paquin is fighting a losing battle against a twee accent, honking dialogue and laughably tremulous encounters with Holliday Grainger’s down-on-her-luck single mother. Ditto the usually excellent Grainger, who is sabotaged both by the film’s tepid depiction of her character’s wilder side and the decision to tell her story through the innocent eyes of her character’s rather drippy son. Adapting a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw, sibling screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth have zero feel for the film’s Scottish mill-town setting beyond what they’ve seen on Sunday night TV costume dramas. Director Annabel Jankel’s overuse of beekeeping as a visual metaphor, meanwhile, just gets increasingly silly.

Gwen, a Welsh-set gothic horror movie set during the transitionary phase of the industrial revolution, comes on like a British social realist spin on Robert Eggers’s masterful 2015 film The Witch. As the eponymous lead, relative new-comer Eleanor Worthington-Cox is good as the young girl haunted by memories of her absent father and forced to contend with the apparent mental disintegration of her mother (Maxine Peake) as they try to hold out against the owners of a local colliery determined to force them off their land. Despite teasing some supernatural elements though, William McGregor’s film is too grounded in real-world bleakness to make its tale of patriarchal menace in mid-19th century Britain anything more than an artfully shot misery fest.

Taking the form of a series of autobiographical lectures exploring her own career, the late Agnés Varda’s final film, Varda by Agnès, sees the 90-year-old godmother of the French New Wave delivering a typically playful and generous exploration of her filmmaking process, one that illuminates how her own life shaped and was shaped by her work. It’s an absolute gift of a film from a director who fundamentally believed that sharing was a key part of her creativity. The joy of seeing her direct Robert De Niro is worth the ticket price alone.