The remake of the Disney classic has an all-star cast and the same great songs—but little of classic Disney's charismatic magic.
In The Lion King—Disney’s 1994 animated original—a pride of lions, led by the king Mufasa, perform a series of extraordinary behaviors. They squint. They wince. Their eyebrows arch to and fro with emotion: panic, anger, a slick sense of satisfaction, a devious sense of scheming. Welcome to anthropomorphism 101. Animals: they’re just like us, when we draw them.
In the new Lion King, helmed by Jon Favreau and out in theaters July 19, much is the same. There are capital-E-emotions. The plot beats are almost completely unrevised, as are many of the visual sequences. That iconic opening—the anointing of Simba as the future king of the pride, borne skyward by a mystical mandrill named Rafiki as the animal kingdom bows in reverence—is unchanged. Disney isn’t stupid; this is a company that knows why we’re here, or thinks it does. And so, again, we have Simba: hero, taunted by hyenas, blamed for the death of his father Mufasa, driven off of Pride Rock by that nefarious, hang-dog uncle Scar. All is well; all is the same.
But in the words of that wise old mandrill Rafiki: Look harder. More than one person in your life is going to liken the photorealistic look of this movie to that of a video game cut scene — those scripted interstitial sequences that make video games feel more movie-like. They will not be entirely wrong.
More flatteringly, The Lion King is being hailed as a major advancement for movie technology—a movie “filmed” almost entirely in virtual reality. Wired magazine recently described it thusly: “They”—the film’s distinctive locales—“can live inside a kind of filmmaking videogame as 360-degree virtual environments full of digitized animals, around which Favreau and his crew could roam.”
The result? The fine digital craftsmanship of our new era, replete with all the vices it entails: nostalgic reenactments of scenes we’ve seen before; colorless voice acting by name-brand performers, the likes of Beyoncé and Donald Glover (who play adult Nala and Simba, respectively); and a color-drained visual palette befitting an early aughts movie about war in the Middle East. Early on, it was clear I’d be able to count every ridge, sub-ridge, and micro-ridge on the trunk of every elephant, and count out the strands of hair on Rafiki’s face. But watching all this made me feel a bit like Little Red Riding Hood visiting the Big Bad Wolf, wearing the guise of her grandmother. Simba, what large, inexpressive, marble-shined eyes you have! What an uncannily post-Botox emotional range you have!
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The new Lion King isn’t a disaster. It’s a lesson: in what makes voice acting resonate, for starters, and in the strangeness of hearing animals emote vocally when their faces are pretty much limited to moving mouths and blinking eyes—no eyebrow action, no subtlety, no liveliness. It’s a lesson in why we value animation in the first place. We value it for, well, its animated nature: as a medium to convey emotions that are bigger onscreen than in real life, and exaggerated expressions, flights of fancy, a complete rejection of physics. But this film favors technological wizardry over its story—and its songs.
Uncle Scar, voiced here by Chiwotel Ejiofor, has his show-stopping number, “Be Prepared,” whittled down into a chant-singing anthem that’s completely drained of the punkish, outrageous vibes it once had. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is, somehow, rendered into a daytime number—with no romance or interest between its leads, which is strange in a movie that had the freedom to build chemistry from the VR ground-floor up. Zazu, the red-billed hornbill servant to the king, is voiced by John Oliver, who’s charismatic in real life and almost completely forgettable here. The pack of hyenas is reduced to one stupid joke about personal space that the movie reiterates once, twice, thrice.
Where did all the fun go? The only real bright spots, for my money, are the new Timon and Puumba, voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively—two comedians merrily ad-libbing and making fart jokes. New ones! When they’re onscreen, we get the widest range of scenes that deviate from the original, and the most sensitive looks at other animals, with occasionally striking close-ups for good measure. We also get the most lively deviations from the expressive "realness" of these animals—unless, that is, warthogs do happy dances in real life.
So much of the new Lion King—the shots, their rhythm, the detail and content of every scene—felt as if it had been ripped directly from my memory banks, which got me thinking back to the interesting failure of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Psycho. That movie was a case study in the difference between merely copying something and really reshaping it, getting one's hands dirty. The Lion King, ultimately, is simply a copy—not a true remake. It’s exactly the movie Disney wanted to make, which is good news for them—but a shame for us.