Few films, even when terrible, possess the power to make me viscerally angry. Mostly, films are made with the best of intentions, making transgressions of taste, style, or quality easily forgivable. However, in 1994, Disney released a classic in The Lion King. The film still signifies a gold standard of composition and lighting in hand-drawn animation. Still, Disney now feels the need — as they have with their other classic properties: Dumbo and Aladdin, to recreate the magic. However, unlike those other attempts that spruced up stories lacking diversity or subtracted uncomfortable racial caricatures, director Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, a shot-for-shot remake with little soul and few narrative ambitions, has zero intentions of updating this classic template; instead, it’s content as the world’s most expensive hall of mirrors.
To give a plot summary for The Lion King is elementary in some respects, but for those who don’t know: A lion named Simba (JD McCrary), heir apparent to the throne, is born. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, who thankfully returns to his iconic role) reigns over the pride lands, and all the sun touches, as king of the lions and African animals. However Mufasa has a jealous brother: Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who plots to kill him with the help of hyenas. Simba, the once bold and brash prince, retreats to the jungle over the guilt of his father’s death.
To bring The Lion King back to life, as if it needed any such resuscitation, Favreau and co employed photorealism CG. The result is a stunning success of imagery and reality, far more than Walt Disney ever dreamed when he made that cartoon mouse decades ago. Nevertheless, their “success” begets a massive failure; they forgot why most animation succeeds. No one wants to see a two-hour simulation of a nature documentary. An infusion of humanity must exist for empathy to occur in any rendering, and animals: especially lions, do not emote. The difference between a lion expressing sadness and hunger is zero.
So while Favreau thankfully employs a dazzling cast of voice actors: Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are hilarious scene stealers as Timon and Pumba, they’re mostly wasted under tufts of CG hair and skin. There’s never a moment when a full suspension of disbelief occurs. In fact, it’s painfully obvious there’s a voice track rather than the voice and animal seamlessly melding together. When Zasu appears on screen, he’s not a bird brought to life by the voice of John Oliver. He’s a bird with Oliver’s voice. The same for Beyonce as Nala. Neither actor welcomes much fault in their respective delivery, but the animals don’t emote as much as their deliveries express. Even Rafiki (John Kani), happy and mysterious Rafiki, morphs into just a regular baboon. And the hyenas: Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and Azizi (Eric André) — lack menace and bite.
The litany of classic imagery swiped from the 1994 classic, which becomes tawdry here, is enumerable. I personally felt nothing during Favreau’s rendering of the Mufasa death scene. Nothing. Actually, that’s a lie. I did laugh a little. The sharp zoom-out of Simba ‘yelling’ “Nooooo,” his small mouth agape with no emotion in his eyes, gave the effect of a well-kept taxidermied animal. Every portion of the film falls victim to Disney and Favreau’s insistence on hyper-realism, even zapping the Mufasa ‘remember me’ scene of any elegance or poignancy. The clouds don’t even resemble his face. Why make a ghost cloud hyper-realistic?
But mostly, The Lion King fails because narratively the story is exactly the same. With Beyonce as Nala one would think her storyline would expand, instead here she might have less to do. One would also think we’d see a longer sequence of Simba (Donald Glover, who truly does his best) living the Hakuna Matata lifestyle: What else did he do and learn in that jungle when he had no worries for the rest of his days? Instead, nothing. Everything that works in The Lion King does so through the inventions of the former film, in less dazzling fashion. Favreau’s reinvention falls victim to the same shortcomings of the recently released Aladdin: the live action lacking the same dynamics as animation. No scene demonstrates such impediments more than the Hakuna Matata sequence, a moment in the former where the characters Timon and Pumba, and Simba dove into water and grooved their heads while strutting, is reduced to a boring walk-and-talk tracking shot.
Ultimately, The Lion King lacks any meat on the bone, picked apart by Hollywood scavengers in a feast for nearly none except for a couple pocketbooks. The only scene with any resonance is the Simba and Scar fight, where no talking occurs, where one only hears the thrashing of their bodies together. If The Lion King displayed such dynamism, the whole affair wouldn’t feel so cheap. And questions wouldn’t abound of who this movie is for. Instead, the film is so bankrupt for ideas they make a musical callback to another Disney property, and the only meaningful addition: Beyonce’s ‘Spirit,’ is plopped down in a rushed traveling montage. Best intentions or not, you’re likelier to find more enjoyment, excitement, and empathy on the ride: “It’s a Small World” — than in any portion of Disney’s newest cash grab: The Lion King.