If you look at the new Disney photo-realistic (but still very much animated) remake of The Lion King from a purely technical standpoint, what it accomplishes is above and beyond just about anything I’ve ever seen. The realism of every single animal is undeniable, which is both astonishing and part of the film’s deeper problem. The magic and playfulness of a hand-drawn animated work has been eliminated from the formula, and what we’re left with is talking and singing animals that have almost no expression and no hints of playfulness and wonder. Artistry has been supplanted by technical wizardry, which can be a type of art, but when the primary goal is lifelike creations, things here can feel quite lifeless at times. Oh, the irony.
The particularly disheartening things about The Lion King is that it’s the brainchild of director Jon Favreau, who helmed a not dissimilar take of moving from animation to “live action” with The Jungle Book, which did feature one human character. The problem with the new film isn’t that it doesn’t have humans, however; it is that it’s lacking a certain humanity. Written by Jeff Nathanson (although basically just lifting the story from the 1994 film), The Lion King doesn’t ever stray far from its roots. The original lion king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the sole voice actor carried over from the animated movie), has a son, Simba (voice as a cub by JD McCrary and as an adult by Donald Glover), who is being groomed to take over the pride and the great African plains, much to the disgust of Mufasa’s mangy brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who plots with the local hyena population to kill Mufasa and rule the lands with absolute authority.
Simba is reckless as a youngster and ends up feeling responsible for his father’s death, deciding that rather than fight Scar’s reign, he’ll run away beyond his rightful lands, never to return. While gone, his mother (Alfre Woodard) and best friend Nala (voiced as a youth by Shahadi Wright Joseph and as an adult by newcomer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) remain behind to try and save the lands and its inhabitants from Scar and his hyena army, while Mufasa’s right-hand bird, Zazu (John Oliver), maintains a subversive stance against the current monarchy. Pretty much just how you remember things.
The film’s most enjoyable moments overall occur when The Lion King strays a bit from its origins, which mostly involve Simba arriving in a protected jungle occupied by best friends Pumbaa (a warthog voiced by Seth Rogen) and Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner). Of course they introduce Simba to the song and lifestyle known as “Hakuna Matata” (“No worries”), but they’re also really funny, thanks to some riffing and improvised dialogue that at least kept me engaged during the film’s lighter moments. There’s a reason these two characters were a standout in the original film, and they still work extremely well as a comedy team in this remake. There’s even a Beauty and the Beast reference that works exceedingly well, when it really shouldn’t.
There are a couple new songs thrown in, and the version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from Glover and Beyoncé is pretty; however in general, the songs in this film feel less integral to the story than I remember. I don’t think I can point to any particular voice actor that doesn’t carry their weight here. In fact, Glover is quite spirited, and I was mesmerized by Ejiofor’s take on Scar, whose delivery drips with sarcasm and bitterness, with a hint of evil playfulness. He knows he’s a bad lion by any definition, but he is also hurt from being slighted by his brother.
In the end, Favreau has made the best version of this particular movie he could after deciding to go the photo-realistic route. I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job, but that doesn’t mean it should have been done in the first place. I’m not one of the people that thinks any film is so good that a remake should never be attempted, but I have noticed that this recent rash of Disney remakes have seen better results when they aren’t afraid to move away from the originals in places. “But what about Dumbo?” you ask. I don’t actually count Dumbo because it wasn’t a remake. It’s a catastrophic war wound on film, but it’s definitely not a remake.
Even still, I’m not sure there was much saving The Lion King from feeling soulless and somewhat pointless. There are some impressive touches scattered throughout, and it’s a beautifully shot movie (the cinematography is credited to the legendary Caleb Deschanel), but it lacks a solid, centered heart, as well as a touch of splendor and majesty. I think those who are decrying it as some sort of travesty are overstating their case for effect. Even still, the movie illustrates that the closer you move into the real world, the further away you get from the beauty of make believe.
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