With “The Lion King,” Disney has unleashed its third “live-action” remake in less than six months, following “Dumbo” and “Aladdin.” I put live-action in quotation marks because this new “Lion King” is still animated, albeit with photo-realistic computer animation.
Disney and director Jon Favreau first experimented with this technology in 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” in which everything accept the actor playing Mowgli (Neel Sethi) was realistically computer animated. The photo-realistic talking animals were ever so slightly anthropomorphized, so that they could be able to emote. This was especially true of Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray).
As there are no human characters in the story, “The Lion King” takes this technique to the next level and everything is animated. Favreau and his creative team utilized virtual reality headsets that allowed them to “walk around” the digitally rendered Pride Rock. The idea was to shoot and edit the film as if it were shot with cameras despite everything being animated.
It is a stunning technical achievement, as at no point do you doubt the realism of the locations and characters. But to quote Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm in “Jurassic Park,” Disney was “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should.”
As impressive as the technology behind the film is, it is a shame that is being employed to make a film that already exists. It is probably safe to say that 90 percent of the new film is a shot-for-shot recreation of the 1994 animated classic which was loosely based on “Hamlet” (the central plotpoint has an uncle killing his brother and assuming the throne).
While there’s some deviation with the dialogue, most of the script is word-for-word identical to the original. Everything you loved about the original, including the songs by Tim Rice and Elton John, is here minus the color, warmth and much of the humor. Which begs the question: what’s the point?
Only a few months ago, I complained that the live-action “Aladdin” was too similar to its predecessor, but it is looking better in retrospect, as even it had some interesting deviations and new character beats.
“Lion King” is padded out from 90 minutes to two hours, but most of the additions are essentially nature documentary shots, so much so that you half expect David Attenborugh to start providing voiceover narration.
I’ve been trying to parse a way to justify these live-action Disney remakes. One way is to think of it as being similar to seeing a theatrical production of a well-known play. Even though it is the same script, you go to see how the actors and director will interpret the material.
For all my complaints about “Aladdin,” the cast, especially Will Smith as the Genie and Naomi Scott as Jasmine, were attempting to put their own stamp on the characters. “Lion King” is far less successful on this front.
Part of this is due to the digitally created animals, which, in attempting to make them as realistic as possible, have become too realistic. When they speak, they have little to no ability to emote.
When the various creatures are speaking to each other, no matter the emotion, they are more-or-less giving the same blank expression. The beauty of animation is how broadly expressive and exaggerated characters can become, but the photo-realistic approach robs the characters of that expressiveness.
The worst example of this is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous Scar. Unlike Jeremy Irons’ deliciously sardonic and campy voicework in the original, Ejiofor is giving an understated and subdued performance. It actually isn’t bad, but the nuance of his voicework gets lost when his lion counterpart isn’t able to showcase any of his subtlety.
Sadly, most of the voicework is oddly dispassionate, which is particularly strange given you have talented people like Donald Glover as adult Simba and Beyonce as adult Nala. Even “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — inexplicably performed in broad daylight — feels off, largely due to Beyonce’s overly breathy performance.
The exception is Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as the comic relief characters Timon and Pumbaa who befriend Simba after Scar dupes him into thinking he killed his father, King Mufasa (returning cast member James Earl Jones), and tells him to never return. John Oliver as Zazu, Mufasa’s chief of staff, also gets a few choice lines, including one about his brother who thought he was a woodpecker.
While Eichner and Rogen do repeat some iconic lines, they are also allowed to riff and come up with new material. The film finally feels vital when they appear because their rapport and chemistry is fresh. I laughed loudly several times at their antics, which was welcomed, as so much of the humor and vibrancy is missing elsewhere.
There was a direct-to-video “Lion King” sequel that focused on what Timon and Pumbaa were doing during the rest of the original film. If they are “The Lion King’s” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then this was their “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” I’d gladly watch a remake of that over this current “Lion King.”
At the end of the day, this is still “The Lion King,” which is a good story well-told, so this new version isn’t an awful film, it is just one that has already been done and better.
If you want to admire the visuals, which are admittedly impressive, it is worth a look, but if you’re seeing this purely out of nostalgia, you’re better off sticking with the original.