The Lion King
2019, PG, 110 min. Directed by Jon Favreau. Voices by JD McCrary, Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keegan Michael-Key, John Oliver, Eric André.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 19, 2019
Ever hear a cover version that's longer than the original? There's something audacious about a band that thinks it knows the tune so much better and is so much more skilled than the one that wrote it that they can just keep going, and going, and going.
Thus it is with the latest in Disney's plundering of its own vaults, the computer-animated remake of The Lion King. The original is a classic, no argument brooked. A lion cub named Simba (voiced here by McCrary) is set to become king, and fill the huge paw prints of his father, Mufasa (Jones, repeating his part). Yet his uncle, Scar (Ejiofor), usurps the throne, sending Simba into exile in the belief that he is to blame for his father's death. The king in exile thinks he has found a simpler life with his new friends, the warthog Pumbaa (Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Eichner); but his old responsibilities come back as his childhood friend Nala (Knowles-Carter) brings him back to restore order. Can the young prince (now voiced by Glover) become the king he was meant to be?
The production story here is pretty simple, but pivotal. In 1950, Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka created Kimba the White Lion, the story of a young lion cub who grows up to be king of a stretch of savannah in balance and harmony – a circle of life, if you will. In 1994, Disney released The Lion King, the story of a young lion cub who grows up to be king of a stretch ... ah, you know. The film was part of the Disney animation renaissance, packed with memorable tunes by Tim Rice and Elton John ("Hakuna Matata," everyone!). It has undergone an IMAX reissue and a 3D conversion. More memorable was the Broadway musical, which managed the impossible and turned the animated animals into one of theatre's most remarkable hybrids of costume, design, and puppeteering. It is a stone-cold pop culture masterpiece.
With that history of adaptability and profitability, it was inevitable that Disney would fold it into its mix of remakes of its classic animations. However, the studio did not simply want to do a live-action remake, like Beauty and the Beast, and they definitely didn't want to let the director off the leash and end up with the revisionist flop Dumbo (Tim Burton's caustic attack on the House of Mouse dressed up as a merchandise machine). Instead, they seemingly wanted to make a movie that combined the song-and-dance action/comedy glee of the original cartoon with their growing strand of nature documentaries. They even brought in director Jon Favreau, who trod a similar jungle trail when he fused live action, CGI, and motion capture for the rebooted The Jungle Book (not to be confused with Andy Serkis' trip into the same uncanny valley, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle).
This new Lion King shows the problems of the bleed between the nature docs and the studio's narrative urges. This year's Penguins took the icy drama of March of the Penguins and bolted on a schmaltzy, kid-friendly plot mechanism. The Lion King keeps the story, but in replacing the flexibility of the hand-drawn animation with hyper-photorealistic depictions of animals, they lose all ability to emote. While not the dead-eyed stare of The Polar Express, every time a creature delivers a line it's like watching an actor with too much Botox: The lips are moving, but the face isn't telling you anything.
Is the CGI incredible? Undoubtedly. The lions look like lions, the hyenas look like hyenas, the grubs that get scarfed down look like grubs. But at the same time, the film makes a clear argument for cubism – in that, just because an artist creates something that looks real, that doesn't make it more engaging. Yet the biggest problem may be the pacing, and that feels like a symptom of Disney's love affair with the power of the processor. Shots that took a few seconds in the original drag on. They look great, but do we really need a minute of a perfectly rendered dung beetle rolling a ball of poop up a hill? More importantly, does the film?
This pretender to the throne never gets past the fact that it's a remake, but with spiffier graphics. It's like a remastered classic game, but somehow the spirit is lost when the 16-bit animation is replaced with the processing power of a modern console. That extends into the voice talent – a stellar list, to be sure, but Ejiofor's delivery of the grandiose "Be Prepared" never matches the purring, posh bombast of Jeremy Irons. Similarly, John Oliver plays officious hornbill courtier Zazu simply because he is this generation's Rowan Atkinson.
Sometimes it works – most especially with Eichner and Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat/warthog odd couple that always have Simba's back. The naturalism works against them in unfortunate ways (alas, no "Hula Song"!), but they at least get that they are stepping into the parts previously given so much life by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella in the recording booths. They get that this needs heart, and in this overly accurate re-creation of real African wildlife, that's what's sorely missing.