Ahh, the old age question. What if the lion in Lion King is real? Did anyone ask about this? Or just me? Well congratulations for anyone that asking for this “The Lion King”—not the animated film, from 1994, but the new C.G.I. version, directed by Jon Favreau is airing in your cinema nearby. Every beast you see in the movie, from elephant to elephant shrew, and every square inch of habitat, from desert sand to belching mud, is computer-created, and one can but marvel at the verisimilitude. If you examined stills from the movie, you might mistake it for a wildlife documentary. Most of the animals, however, must also speak and sing, and that’s where the problems creep in. The hairs on the golden mane of the hero, Simba (Donald Glover), may be present and correct, but, when he delivers dialogue, his great mouth gives a chewy little ripple, as if he had a morsel of baby gazelle stuck in his back teeth. The colossal effort to make him look like a real lion, in other words, collides with the need to turn him into a character, and the mashup is profoundly disconcerting. Disney’s axiom should be revised as follows: “Digital action, which makes everything possible, will seem implausible if the viewer feels that the action he or she is watching has some base elements of cartoon.” Yet cartoons were meant to be a blast.
Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you they were going to take you to a movie and you responded by asking, your voice leaping with a combination of hope and trepidation, “Is it a cartoon?” Remember the triple disappointment when they told you that no, it wasn’t a cartoon, but that sometimes, live-action movies can be good, sometimes even better than cartoons — triple because you knew that a) they were hopelessly, painfully myopic about what makes a movie “good” for kids, b) something in their tone let you know that even they knew they were peddling lies to you, their beloved child, and c) movies are supposed to be fun adventures, not an ordeal that sometimes turns out better than expected? Judging from Disney’s increasingly sad parade of live-action remakes — a spectacle that looks more and more like its ‘90s string of cash-grabby, inspiration-free, direct-to-video sequels, only this time with vastly superior production values — it seems you were right way back then.
The trouble with Jon Favreau’s “photo-real” — as opposed to “live action” — remake of the studio’s animated super-smash hit The Lion King is there right at the outset, in the shot-for-shot copy of the opening scene. As the sun rises over the African plains, all the animals who inhabit the pride lands gather at the base of an enormous rock outcropping to pay homage to their future king: Simba, the leonine son of Mufasa and Sarabi. On the one hand, it’s impressive as all get out: gosh, but the animals look real. On the other, why on earth are a bunch of real animals celebrating the birth of a new apex predator? Hooray, another set of tearing claws! Huzzah, a new pair of murderous jaws! Which one of us will be lucky enough to provide his first fleshy meal? Yes, yes, the question of eating your subjects came up in the animated version, but here’s the genius of animation: it provides just enough of a remove from reality to make the notion of the hunted welcoming the hunter easier to …swallow. Here and elsewhere, the move to live-action becomes a net loss.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives dramatic gravitas to Scar, Mufasa’s brother, who plots to take over the kingdom. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, warm and full of laughs, are able to riff and find their own space as comedic relief duo Pumbaa and Timon, who teach Simba the ways of Hakuna Matata, “The Lion King’s” version of fugheddaboutit. John Oliver comes on strong and takes some getting used to as Zazu, the bird who delivers his lion masters the daily download about what’s happening in the kingdom, but comes around.
On the other end, Donald Glover and Beyoncé both come up short as the grown-up Simba and Nala, their flat line readings coming off as stiff, one of the few instances where the characters on screen actually feel as if they’re being voiced by actors in a recording studio. Their duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” also flatlines, as the centerpiece emotional moment shifts to the Beyoncé offering “Spirit,” which works but doesn’t deliver goosebumps.
Disney is in the midst of an ongoing campaign to update its beloved animated classics for a new generation, from the recent Dumbo and Aladdin to upcoming versions of Mulan and The Little Mermaid. Some of these remakes have been more inspired than others, but few have felt quite as futile as The Lion King. This isn’t the circle of life; it’s more like a creative dead end. Director Jon Favreau (who also directed Disney’s excellent remake of The Jungle Book) wants to make sure we remember the original film, constantly tapping into fond memories and nostalgia for his audience’s childhoods. But rather than recalling the things we love and pushing it into new, uncharted territory, he simply carbon copies what we’ve already seenRT-APPROVAL: 3/5