The Lion King, Disney’s latest attempt to make a new hit from the blueprint of one of its old ones, begins the exact same way as the 1994 animated smash on which it’s based: with a blood-red sun peaking over the horizon of the African Serengeti, a single chanting voice rising with it. What follows is a shot-for-shot recreation of that film’s spectacular opening musical number, “The Circle Of Life,” in which all the beasts in the kingdom take their place at the foot of a jutting rock, ready to pay respect to the young predator that will soon be calling them prey.
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There’s a key difference, however. This time, the antelopes and giraffes and scurrying ants look exactly like actual antelopes and giraffes and scurrying ants. And that proves to be both the major technological achievement of the movie and its great miscalculation, its fundamental folly. The scene’s dramatic apex is supposed to be the interaction between the mighty lion Mufasa (a returning James Earl Jones, because who could replace him?) and the wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani), who’s come to present the king’s newborn son to the world. But both characters have been so authentically rendered, with the limited range of facial motion their respective species possess, that we’re essentially just watching two animals stare blankly at each other. The emotional connection between them is entirely theoretical, supplied only by context or maybe by memories of what their hand-drawn ancestors more clearly conveyed.
Technically, this new Lion King is as much a cartoon as the old Lion King; it’s been created entirely on computers, and features nary a single life-form or landscape not made from 1s and 0s. But like Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast, and the recent, embarrassing Aladdin, it’s a lavish Disney remake that detrimentally thrusts material conceived for animation into an effectively live-action world. At least those films anchored their nostalgia trips to real personalities. There’s almost nothing recognizably human in The Lion King, which labors under the bizarre misconception that anyone needed a photorealistic take on the Shakespearean struggle between talking, singing lions. Joyless, artless, and maybe soulless, it transforms one of the most striking titles from the Mouse House vault into a very expensive, star-studded Disney Nature film.
Is there a point here, beyond squeezing a few million more out of a tale that’s already been Broadway adapted and direct-to-video sequelized and prequelized? The Lion King wants to make us gape, like those genuflecting herbivores, at its state-of-the-art craftsmanship—at how far animation has come in 25 years. Yet there’s something distracting, even uncanny-valley unnerving about hearing, say, John Oliver’s panicked voice projecting out from the clicking beak of a dead-eyed hornbill. The effect isn’t so different from what you’d get from dubbing over the chewing maw of a real animal, Mister Ed-style. And the lack of expressiveness becomes a real liability when it comes to caring about our hero, prince Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as a grown lion), who sports the same placid, unchanging cat face when he’s confronted by the defining tragedy of his childhood as when he’s pouncing on a beetle.
One-time Swinger Jon Favreau, now a go-to guy for special-effects showcases (did anyone see that coming, even after Iron Man?), offered a similarly lifelike menagerie in his dry run to the gig, The Jungle Book. Caught in its own uncanny valley between fidelity and deviation, that movie wanted to be a direct remake but also its own thing. The Lion King settles, unimaginatively, for the former. It’s more faithful, even, than those carbon copies of Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin, which bulked up their running times with (unnecessary) subplots and (forgettable) new songs. Here, it’s basically scene for scene the same plot, as young Simba becomes a pawn in the Claudius-like scheme of Mufasa’s resentful runt-of-the-litter brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), then flees the pride and reinvents himself as a carefree bachelor to avoid facing his past. Even those who consider the original a towering classic of the Disney Renaissance would probably concede that it’s not for the film’s story, with its skimpy second act and weird, there-goes-the-neighborhood class politics.
No, The Lion King endures because it’s gorgeously animated, mythically scaled, and packed with memorable songs. Yet however confidently he can oversee a big production, Favreau has almost no knack for spectacle, and over and over again, he botches scenes that soared in ’94. Early showstopper “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” was practically a Busby Berkeley number. But because real animals could never stack on top of each other like that (silly!), the new version finds Simba and love interest Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph at first, Beyoncé later) trading lines while… running through a stream. It’s not the only musical sequence that falls flat; Scar’s jaunty villain anthem “Be Prepared” has been totally gutted, whereas the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” now unfolds during the day, for some reason. Excepting the opening scene, Favreau makes no attempt to match the original’s extravagant angles and choreography: While Scar’s hyena cronies once menacingly emerged from the sockets of an elephant skull, here they just kind of wander into frame.
It’s as if every creative decision were subordinate to the film’s misguided insistence on realism, on keeping the mannerisms and movements of these magically intelligent creatures “believable.” And so, all the pleasures are not just secondhand but diminished: We’re watching a hollow bastardization of a blockbuster, at once completely reliant on the audience’s pre-established affection for its predecessor and strangely determined to jettison much of what made it special. Even the vocal performances, delivered by Favreau’s high-profile celebrity cast, suffer by comparison, perhaps because the actors are forced to downshift to match the narrower emotional spectrum of their digital avatars. This means, for example, that Ejiofor abandons all the campy relish Jeremy Irons brought to Scar, reducing the heavy to a single note of bitterness, while Jones dims the regal intensity like a stage actor who’s started to grow a little bored playing the same role night after night. Ultimately, only Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as slacker sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, make much of an impression; their funny, possibly ad-libbed banter feels both fresh and true to the spirit of the characters—the perfect remake recipe. Just don’t look too hard at their character designs. They’re realistic, hideously.