Disney’s unstoppable ouroboros of nostalgia, rebranding its old stories as new live-action films, has become as inevitable as the circle of life. At the very least, Disney’s past retellings have brought some new wrinkle to liven up these well known stories. Just this year, Dumbo expanded the circus world of the flying elephant, while Aladdin made Jasmine more integral to the story. Neither came close to their animated predecessors, but at least they tried. The Lion King – Disney’s third remake this year – is a “live-action” remake of the 1994 film, that’s also entirely animated, because words mean nothing anymore. With this new telling of The Lion King, there’s more to see than can ever be seen, but more reason to think this should’ve never been done.
Like director Jon Favreau’s last film, 2016’s The Jungle Book, The Lion King sticks to the original film to a fault. The story of Simba (the younger version voiced by JD McCrary, older by Donald Glover) coming to find his rightful place as the king of Pride Rock hasn’t changed in 25 years. Animation aside, Favreau has changed very little. “Be Prepared,” as sung by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar, has been pared down quite a bit, and some scenes have been padded out with extra moments for no real purpose. The most flagrant of these is the sequence in which Rafiki (John Kani) discovers that Simba is still alive. The scene follows a tuft of adult Simba’s hair across the desert, is eaten by a giraffe, then turned into a crap ball pushed by a dung beetle and to the hand of Rafiki himself. This sequence is at least three times longer than in the original and only serves to slow down the story for no apparent reason.
The Lion King’s biggest strength and weakness is its animation. The level to which the animators have brought these animals and landscapes to life is truly stunning. The detail is exquisite and intricate, to the point that one can see the tendons in the paws of Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), or count the ribs on an emaciated Scar. But this dedication to realism takes away from the expressive nature of the original. By trying to make this film as believable as possible, Favreau and his team have zapped much of the magic out of this story. For example, in the animated original, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” was a vibrant and colorful ode of joy, and “Hakuna Matata” was a fun, active romp with two newfound friends. But since The Lion King has to adhere to naturalism, both of these numbers are reduced to these characters walking around, with open maws to account for their “singing.” The uncanny valley of realistic animals singing isn’t as bad as expected, but in comparison to the original, this presentation is a massive step down.
The only place where The Lion King allows for any original voice is fittingly in its excellent voice cast. The surprise stars here are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively. Their banter is fresh and feels made up in the moment, a stark contrast to the way the rest of this story is told. Much of Eichner and Rogen’s dialogue is completely new to this story, and breathes much-needed life into a film that feels stale from the opening frame. Most of The Lion King is impeccably cast, like placing Eric André as the insane hyena Azizi, or John Oliver as the proper hornbill, Zazu. The problem again though is that the animation, these dead-eyed animals don’t do justice to the cast. When even Glover and Beyoncé, as Nala, feel occasionally lifeless, it’s clear there’s something wrong with this mismatch of character design and voice actors.
The Lion King is easily the most unnecessary and egregious of Disney’s remake cash-ins. The Lion King’s minuscule additions don’t warrant this film to exist, and the dedication to realism actively hurts the story being told. When Zazu sings that Simba’s future rule as king is “a rather uninspiring thing,” it’s hard not to laugh at the unintentional irony at hand.