How you react to the remake of The Lion King will likely depend upon your attitude towards Disney’s “reimagining’” of their classics library. Some will see their latest effort as little more than box office greed, a new way to ring up dollars off an established property. Others will view the studio more generously, tipping their hat to an entertainment powerhouse updating a 25-year-old mainstay for today’s audiences. Just as Hamlet gets performed in contemporary dress, and Sherlock texts like Millennials, so too does Disney dabble with modernity.
Thus, this new version of the 1994 animated classic arrives this week with a photo-realistic interpretation similar to the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book. Some will see this film as a magnificent technical feat, or an affectionate homage. Others will simply see red.
Disney’s track record with re-doing their animated classics via live-action has produced a mixed bag. The 2015 version of Cinderella modernized the heroine into a fierce feminist and critics and audiences ate it up. 2019’s live-action Dumbo, with a dozen human characters pushing the elephant out of the limelight, didn’t fare as well. This updated version of The Lion King sticks very close to its source material as the new script by Jeff Nathanson and Brenda Chapman barely changes a beat in the story or the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. Indeed, veteran character actor James Earl Jones even returns to provide the voice of Mufasa, the elder king.
You’ll recognize shots and camera moves from the very get-go as director Jon Favreau recreates the “Circle of Life” set-piece very, very close to the 1994 original. All the animals in the jungle gather to welcome Simba (voiced by JD McCrary), the new lion cub born to King Mufasa (Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). Rafiki the baboon (John Kani) presents him to the crowd while the nervous Hornbill Zazu (John Oliver) flutters about. And nearby, jealous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stews in jealousy.
From there, all the plot points, and a great deal of the dialogue, is exactly the same as 25 years ago. Simba wants to grow up too fast. He endangers the female cub Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) by venturing too close to the lair of the vicious hyenas with her. Mufasa scolds Simba about his mischievous behavior over and over again. And Scar overthrows the king by well, overthrowing the king, quite literally.
Yet, despite the familiarity, most of it still plays because it’s a damn good story. And even though none of the voices give the originals a run for their money, most of the cast acquit themselves quite nicely. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are no Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, the original Timon and Pumbaa, but they brighten each scene they have onscreen. Their “Hakuna Matata” number, demonstrating their life philosophy of “no worries,” is still quite the show-stopper. And while Ejiofor doesn’t quite project the languid hatred that Jeremy Irons brought to Scar, the British actor does give the best vocal performance of the lot here.
Similar to his direction of The Jungle Book remake, Favreau respects the laws of nature and doesn’t force his animal characters to move in ways that they could not normally, other than move their lips to talk, of course. Instead, the animal’s bodily movements perform the heavy lifting as these creatures cannot roll their eyes, furrow their brows, or drop their jaws. It feels jarring watching these characters stare at each other so much, but that’s what animals do.
It can sometimes feel very static, and it often keeps the material from connecting as vividly as the animated version did. There are other notable flaws in the production as well. The hyenas are far too terrifying, and will likely freak out the younger audiences, and the script’s attempt at giving the scavengers some humorous interplay falls shockingly flat. Favreau whiffs the staging of the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” by having it take place during the daytime. Additionally, Donald Glover and Beyoncé make an okay pair as the adult Simba and Nala but they don’t dazzle. Even the new number “Spirit,” written expressly for the female superstar, doesn’t quite deliver the inspiration it thinks it does.
To his credit, Favreau doesn’t overdo the musical numbers. With too much Broadway bombast, they’d counter the efforts to make things play realistically. Thus, Favreau has his cast ‘talk-sing’ most of the lyrics, making the poetry sound more like dialogue. The film is a good 30 minutes longer than the original animated version, but that was to be expected in the age of epic tent-poles. Still, all the money spent is up there on the screen, and the photo-realistic animation of the animal characters is genuinely extraordinary. You may not like seeing a realistic-looking Simba, one who doesn’t smile or laugh as he did in 1994, but you can’t argue with the technical prowess that went into creating this new version.
Even as the filmmakers remained slavishly faithful to the original story, script, and songs, not wanting to futz with the tried and true material, Disney had to know that tinkering in any way with such a beloved masterpiece as The Lion King was going to cause an uproar. The film will likely still be a monolithic hit, but one wonders what Disney could’ve done with all that talent and money directed towards something wholly new. And who knew so many fans would be waiting with their claws out?
View the trailer below: