Exactly an hour after I was emotionally, mentally, and physically attacked by the trailer for Tom Hooper’s Cats, I was seated in the theater for The Lion King. I was so preoccupied by the sight of the Cats cats that I briefly forgot all that I had heard about how strange and emotionless the very real seeming CGI lions looked while singing and talking.
There are moments of sheer beauty in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, moments that you can’t quite believe are CGI because they look that overwhelmingly real (there are dozens of shots that could be mistaken for a nature documentary). You almost can’t help but marvel at the spectacle of it all, especially when thinking of how much special effects work went into this whole undertaking. Unfortunately, the very thing that sets this film apart—its realism—is the thing that makes it hard to sell.
The film lacks the emotion and heart that made the original so beloved in the first place. Mufasa’s death, a moment of great cultural and emotional importance for anyone who grew up watching the original, is still affecting but remarkably less so as the young Simba sounds distraught but shows no actual emotional expression. These blank gazes and frozen faces are the root of the film’s problem. It’s hard to believe that Simba and Nala are falling in love when their eyes remain blank and faces show no change or movement. The star-studded voice cast does their best to emote but it’s not backed up by tears or smiles.
At times, the film seems diluted and spiritless, as if every bright spot of the original was purposely toned down, including the iconic musical numbers and epic score. Yes, “Circle of Life” is still an absolute bop, but the arrangements throughout lack the epic swell and pizzazz of the original soundtrack. Yes, real life isn’t necessarily as boldly colorful as an animated movie made for kids, but considering the film is a shot for shot remake of the 1994 original (I watched them both back to back and even the script is basically the same), its overall aesthetic doesn’t do much to distinguish it from its iconic predecessor.
However, there are some bright spots! In the second act, Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen), burst onto the scene and give the film a jolt of life and humor that’s very much needed. Eichner is particularly impressive and absolutely nails “Hakuna Matata” with theatrics and charm. And although Rogen can’t necessarily hold a tune, he nails Pumbaa’s good-natured spirit and the authenticity of the performance really brings the film down to earth. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s deep baritone is a decent fit for the nefarious Scar, but the updated version of his solo number “Be Prepared” leaves much to be desired.
The young actors who voice Simba and Nala as children, JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (who was fantastic earlier this year in Jordan Peele’s Us) respectively, are excellent and get a lot of laughs alongside anxious majordomo Zazu (John Oliver, who fills Rowan Atkinson’s shoes admirably). Beyoncé is of course fabulous and fierce, and gets some great lines (“Lions…attack!” is a personal favorite) and Nala is still the only reason anything gets done around Pride Rock! These standouts and the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s still The Lion King, make up for some of the life the transition to CGI sucks out of the story. One thing I will not forgive is the decision to set the romantic ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” in complete daylight. How am I supposed to feel the love TONIGHT when it’s the AFTERNOON?
There’s been plenty of discussion about Disney’s strategy of remaking all of their classic animated hits into live-action blockbusters. Some say their “childhood is ruined” if one little detail is changed, others lament the blatant greediness of it all. No one can seem to decide if they want an exact remake or an updated, creative take on an old, much-loved story. Previous remakes have varied in style, quality, and creative vision but this somewhat dull carbon copy is the biggest let down so far. The Lion King is perhaps the most vibrant and iconic entry in Disney’s animated film collection and it’s a shame to see it brought to life but feel so lifeless.
The Lion King is now in theaters worldwide