The Lion King
When The Lion King came out in 1994, it helped solidify the Disney renaissance of that era. The film felt fresh, original, and entirely engaging. Decades on, that sense of wonder and experimentation is mostly erased in Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI remake, which feels far more redundant than revelatory.
Much of the fault of this version lays in the obvious unnecessity of its being. Even granting the fact that Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book told new elements of its tale in a different way, here the original looms even higher than Pride Rock.
The cast is suitably Tweet-worthy. James Earl Jones effortlessly towers over his other collaborators with a voice that still feels like it plunders the depths of one’s soul. Chiwetel Ejoifor takes on Scar, and while he lacks Jeremy Irons’ oily menace, it’s still a welcome take. Alfre Woodard is regal as Sarabi, John Kani brings a welcome authenticity as Rafiki, and Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre are adequate as the hyenas. Beyoncé’s role as Nala has been expanded, including a new song called “Spirit” (which is well recorded but feels out of place), and does well with the part.
The biggest surprise, not in a positive way, is Donald Glover. His singing, especially against Beyoncé’s, simply doesn’t mesh, and his Simba comes across more petulant than profound. The performance shows some limitations in his craft that aren’t often exposed, and it’s the most jarring part of the entire proceeding.
John Oliver and Seth Rogan do a bunch of “talk-singing” to get through the hard bits, but Billy Eichner can carry a tune fairly well. Their characters – Zazu, Pumbaa, and Timon respectfully – constantly riff on the differences from this Lion King to previous versions, both on stage and screen. Their playfulness feels over-rehearsed, as per the years-long slog of putting a film like this together, but they’re at least having fun and bringing us along for the ride.
The songs themselves are satisfactory if unremarkable cover versions of what we heard before. Pharrell Williams worked with Hans Zimmer and company to inject a bit of modern R&B flavor. It’s fine, but a general sense of complacent acceptance governs much of the film in many respects.
Visually, the models of the animals are truly astonishing, and it’s easy to be jaded about the armies of individuals who worked to make that happen. Still, they lack real connection, resulting in a kind of “deep fake” approach where things feel just a tiny bit off. The most cinematic, sweeping moments are directly evocative of the animated original, which only serves to remind us of the brilliant, cinematic audacity of the hand-drawn (with CGI augmentation) version, and how little visually Favreau has actually added to this landscape.
This all comes back to a tired if still accurate worry – what’s the point? The stage play by Julie Taymor (a credited executive producer here) shows that a radical reinterpretation that maintains the core elements of the story can be quite extraordinary. I would have loved if Favreau mixed it all up – really ripped the songs apart, made Pride Rock less overtly identical, or messed with the story in surprising ways. That may have interfered with the film’s commercial potential, but surely would have helped moved the legacy of The Lion King forward more than this film does.
Favreau’s remake neither flounders nor flourishes. This Lion King growls more than it roars.