- The Lion King
- Directed by: Jon Favreau
- Written by: Jeff Nathanson
- Featuring the voices of: Donald Glover, Beyoncé and Seth Rogen
- Classification: PG; 118 minutes
“This feels familiar. Where have I seen this before?” This question is heard late in director Jon Favreau’s version of The Lion King, delivered by the villainous Scar (voiced with delicious contempt by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he prepares to slay another member of the Mufasa monarchy. But I was muttering those very same words throughout the entire film, so bewildered was I by Favreau and Disney’s decision to produce a beat-by-beat facsimile of the animated classic. This 2019 Lion King not only feels extraordinarily familiar – it is mostly pointless, too.
Although the easiest way to describe Lion King 2.0 is as a “live-action” remake of Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers’s 1994 film, Disney would prefer that we call this the product of a “whole new medium” that blends “traditional live-action filmmaking language, state-of-the-art virtual-reality tools and photo-real digital imagery.” That sounds impressive and indeed much of Favreau’s visuals are stunning to take in. The digitally created African backdrops, complete with lush waterfalls and endlessly stretching sand dunes, look as if they were shot on location. The same goes for the many lions, hyenas, giraffes, monkeys, warthogs and antelopes that populate the film, all meticulously designed in their hairs and physical tics to appear as if they were pulled straight out of a 4K high-definition nature documentary. Even when the creatures’ mouths start moving (agh!) and the stoner chuckle of, say, Seth Rogen pops out of one (wha?), the whole endeavour feels incredibly, and then distressingly, real.
It’s the sort of cinematic magic trick that can only be pulled off with massive resources and the creative talent to match. Favreau’s team also comes close to creating eyes that appear convincing, soulful – a much-needed step outside the uncanny valley that has plagued such previous CGI efforts as Alita: Battle Angel and the late-career oeuvre of Robert Zemeckis. The convincing sumptuousness of The Lion King also suggests that Disney has now harnessed a next-generation level of technology that, were it to fall in the wrong hands, could be world-ending, in a #DeepFakes sort of way. Which is a political concern for another day.
Once you fall into the groove of this new Lion King’s aesthetic innovation, though, there are about 117 minutes left to wonder why it’s been deployed here.
Like the 1994 film, Favreau’s remake/re-imagining/whatchamacallit opens with the powerful Circle of Life sequence introducing lion cub Simba (JD McCrary as a kid, then Donald Glover all grown up), but proceeds to follow the exact same narrative path as the original, albeit stretched out half an hour longer. Jealous outcast Scar schemes his way into ruling the animal kingdom, Simba flees his home and befriends carefree warthog Pumbaa (Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), and everyone learns some valuable lessons about bravery and responsibility along the way.
It’s an entertaining and thrilling tale, if you’ve never seen it before. But you have. And for those too young to have been exposed to Minkoff and Allers’s film, this version ultimately functions as a less-worthy introduction to Simba’s story. There is something indelibly joyful about the playful elasticity of hand-drawn animation that is lost in Favreau’s photorealistic world, while the musical numbers feel silly, if not jarring. There is plenty of wonder on offer in this Lion King, but little imagination.
Not that Disney much cares, which is what makes the “new” film such a galling product of intellectual-property grave-robbing. There is only one reason we have been gifted such a naked cash grab, and that’s our collective weakness for nostalgia. We’ve already proved we’re easy marks – this is Disney’s third remake of its animated canon to open this year alone. So long as we keep shoving ourselves into theatres for the safe and familiar, Disney will be happy to feed our desire for maximum comfort and zero surprises. Congratulations to the filmmakers, I suppose, for not attempting to disguise their eagerness to placate such a lazy audience – Simba’s mighty father Mufasa is once again voiced by James Earl Jones, as if nobody could be bothered to think of a substitute.
Three years ago, Favreau and Disney produced a similar redo with The Jungle Book, but at least there the director found ways to streamline the story and mine darker territory. There is no such attempt with The Lion King, unless you count the addition of two B-side pop songs to the soundtrack and one self-referential joke about the Mouse House delivered by Eichner (who, along with Rogen and Ejiofor, seem to be the only members of the cast aware of the fact that if you’re working on an animated film, you should be somewhat, you know, animated).
It is not as if the original story doesn’t present opportunities for creative updates. Simba’s childhood friend Nala (voiced here by Beyoncé) and his mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) were given little to do in the original, but sit on the sidelines and implore the male lions to take care of things. Presumably, even the most zealous Lion King purist would have welcomed a change there, yet Favreau seems pleased enough with himself that he got Beyoncé involved at all – an enthusiasm the star herself doesn’t seem to share, given her low-energy performance seemingly lifted from a casual table-read.
After stumbling out of the film’s downtown Toronto press screening the other day, I stopped in front of the Princess of Wales Theatre, currently hosting a touring version of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. The Broadway musical is now 22 years old, but in recalling Taymor’s wild vision and pure inventiveness in remixing Disney’s tale, it feels far more fresh and thrilling than what will be crowding multiplexes this week. But that’s the circle of life. It moves us all, straight to the box office.
The Lion King opens July 19