Just two months after releasing a colorful, if kooky, reboot of Aladdin, Disney plays it completely safe with The Lion King. Fearful of changing a single hair on Simba’s photorealistic head, director Jon Favreau tells audiences the exact same story they saw in 1994, making the most minor of concessions to avoid receiving Gus van Sant/Psycho-levels of criticism. Despite the rehash feeling, the astounding hyperrealism of the animals and locations, coupled with a comic pair that runs away with the show, helps The Lion King retain some freshness worth experiencing.
The Lion King tells the story of Simba (voiced as an adult by Donald Glover and JD McCray as a child), who, as a cub, is groomed to be king by his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones). When Mufasa dies at the hands of his villainous brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Simba is blamed and runs away. In order to restore peace to the pride lands, Simba must put the past behind him and find the inner strength to take his place as king.
Since Disney initiated its goal of remaking what feels like every one of the studio’s Renaissance-era animated features into live-action films, questions have abounded about what the point is. Is the goal to enhance the films with technology that wasn’t around in the early ‘90s? To give marginalized characters more depth? Enhance diversity? There has never been a hard and fast set of rules, short of “remind the audience why they loved it.” The Lion King is one of Disney’s most popular movies, so there appears to be little desire to do more than bring in new fans who, for some reason, might outright refuse to watch the 1994 original. Jeff Nathanson is credited as the screenwriter, but nearly 95 percent of the movie is, line-for-line, untouched.
There are moments of divergence or extension of characters or moments, but they’re few and highly underdeveloped. A subplot for hyena Shenzi (voiced with pure menace by Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba) involving a hyena/lion war goes nowhere by the end, which is a shame as the hyenas aren’t positioned as being mindless, goose-stepping Nazis this time; instead they’re a marginalized community upset by the lions’ dominance of lands that should be theirs. It’s a missed opportunity to give added depth to a trio of characters lacking in it originally. It’s understandable that the studio would want to avoid political comparisons, but by making the hyenas an outcast and exploited group, it would have been fascinating for the script to play on those themes. However, the movie needs to hit so many of the original beats that it’s just left without resolution.
“Who really cares about the story, when the technology is so utterly astounding?” appears to be the film’s mentality. As Favreau explained at the recent premiere, nearly every source of cutting edge technology was employed for the film, including virtual reality, and the results are the most photorealistic narrative to ever exist, building and surpassing what Favreau already did with his previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book. Baloo looked real, but Simba looks like he’s ready to pounce off the screen and into the audience. Regardless of the content, The Lion King is the most beautiful movie made in the last 20 years. At times you don’t feel you’re watching a fictional narrative but one of Disney’s many nature documentaries or the BBC series Planet Earth. The characters certainly look like real lions, which is a sight to behold, but has the disadvantage of prohibiting one’s ability to tell the difference between characters; the female lions especially are nearly impossible to tell apart and there are only two of significance.
That being said, both Alfre Woodard and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter have fantastic voices for this movie, though like all the other lion characters they’re flat, affectless, and given little to do. With Disney making a point about female characters in previous works, it’s odd that Nala and Sarabi still feel like background characters. Sarabi is mentioned as making one major move but we never see it, and outside of one extended passage, Nala’s the same as her character in the animated feature. Even the showdown between Shenzi and Nala isn’t developed enough to give it a rousing sense of weight.
Unlike the previous film, where the actors’ vocal performances were brash and memorable—they were acting, regardless of whether they were on-camera—here everyone appears to have one basic tone and manner of speaking. This is felt most keenly with Ejiofer’s Scar. Gone is the fey theatricality of Jeremy Irons’ performance, and it’s replaced with little more than a basic baddie. Ejiofor has a lovely voice, but it’s so muted here. And the fact that the “Be Prepared” number is radically changed—two stanzas of spoken-word lyrics do not a song make—leaves Scar neutered. It is reminiscent of the Broadway musical, but why make that the moment where the stage musical is employed? As far as Glover goes, it feels like he’s lost more dialogue than the character had before. If you didn’t know he was the lead, you wouldn’t know here.
The scene-stealers are Billy Eichner’s Timon and Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa, no surprise because their characters are the most divergent from the source material. Where the other actors are left to say nearly all the original film’s dialogue, Eichner and Rogen just seem to be naturally riffing off each other, to hilarious effect. They’re more of what the film should have focused on, familiar characters with a more modern edge (technology aside). Though their Timon and Pumbaa are no different than in the ‘94 movie, the banter and humor is sharper. Eichner sings and charms his way into audiences’ hearts with a Timon that’s so witty you’ll want to see it again for his performance alone.
If the goal is not to judge a movie by its predecessor, then creating a shot-for-shot reboot is contradictory. If the film’s fresh in your mind you’ll be comparing every line to how it was spoken in the original, analyzing how the performers work with the material here versus 25 years ago. The Lion King doesn’t want to be compared, but it doesn’t want to stand on its own. For better or worse, remakes like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast attempted to inject new plotlines and characters to separate them from the heavy bar of their predecessors. Even Cinderella was faithful to the original fairy tale but different from its movie. The Lion King doesn’t want to shake things up; it wants to remind you of the 1994 version and make it prettier to watch.
The Lion King is extremely gorgeous and worthy of being seen on the biggest screen possible, but like the last few Disney features to come down the pipe it can’t help but feel completely unnecessary. Eichner and Rogen are worth the price of said admission, however, and families who have worn out their VHS and DVD copies will, no doubt, want to experience this again. It’s fun, it’s gorgeous, second verse same as the first.
Kristen Lopez is an RT-affiliated film critic and pop culture essayist whose work has been published on Forbes.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and Roger Ebert. She’s also the creator of the podcasts Ticklish Business and Citizen Dame.
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