Although it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe this as “live-action”, the 1994 animated classic The Lion King is the newest film to get the remake treatment from Disney, helmed by none other than Jon Favreau, director of 2016’s remake of The Jungle Book. Unlike his first foray into revitalizing an animated classic, though, Favreau does not achieve as much success with The Lion King.
Unless you have lived your entire life underneath a rock, chances are you have seen The Lion King or (at the very least) are familiar with the story. This remake sticks quite closely to the story of the original, and so purists and those few who are young enough to have not seen the original may be pleased with this loyal retelling. However, anyone who is hoping for more than a straightforward re-hash with a bit of added gloss will be disappointed.
The only part of the original’s magic that this remake was able to recapture was the emotional heft of the character arcs. The emotional beats in this story are very resonant and touching, and one would have to be heartless not to sympathize with Simba for his situation. Granted, a few scenes won’t hit quite as hard as they would have when you saw them the first time, but they are still heartbreaking nonetheless.
Unfortunately, this brilliant characterization is rendered useless by lackluster delivery from the voice cast. Even though the casting choices may sound great on paper, they aren’t so effective in execution. The only performances that were strong were James Earl Jones as Mufasa (because he is playing the same role he did so well in the original), John Kani as Rafiki, and Donald Glover as Simba. That said, Kani and Glover feel criminally underused. Glover particularly so, as he is the factor that infuses life into the one (and a half) musical numbers of which he is a part.
The performances of the supporting cast range from out-of-place to under-utilized. In the former category are John Oliver’s turn as the messenger Zazu, his performance feeling horribly wooden, and Keegan-Michael Key’s performance as the hyena Kamari, which was simply an odd casting choice. Beyoncé (adult Nala), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), and Billy Eichner (Timon) simply don’t do enough to make their performances stand out. As for the two child actors who play the younger versions of Simba and Nala, JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, their performances are fine apart from a few scenes in which they are a tad awkward.
Yet perhaps the most frustrating issue with this remake is not that it doesn’t differentiate itself enough from the original, it is that it does not differentiate itself enough from the other Disney remakes. Up until this point, each of the Disney remakes have had their own style. The only other director to helm two remakes, Tim Burton, even tried to make his second remake (Dumbo) feel different from his first (Alice in Wonderland). Although Burton ended up failing, at least he tried to do something unique. Favreau, on the other hand, plays it safe and makes The Lion King feel too similar to The Jungle Book.
Audiences have already seen this technology — beautiful CGI animals as the star of a film shot against equally beautiful green screen environments — applied before. As a result, The Lion King fails to justify its existence. The purpose of a remake should be to modernize the original, either with new technology or new relevance to the material. Maybe if Disney had waited a few more years to let filmmaking technology take yet another leap, this could have been breathtaking. As is, it feels like day old bread.
This isn’t a discredit to the movie’s execution — it does look and sound very good — but it just doesn’t feel fresh and unique anymore. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is great, as is the score by Hans Zimmer and the remixes of the classic songs from Elton John and Beyoncé. Additionally, the animation of the animals is mostly brilliant, with a ton of detail put into their design, down to the motion of individual hairs. In a few scenes, the synchronization of the animals’ mouths is a tad off (the jaw movements are fine, but the lip movements are weak, as if watching a ventriloquist’s dummy), but this isn’t overly distracting.
Ultimately, The Lion King isn’t bad, but it just isn’t necessary either. Although Favreau is a talented filmmaker that did some excellent CGI work on the film, this movie likely would have been better off had Disney hired another director to bring a different style to create more differentiation from other Disney remakes. Regardless, this is destined to be one of this summer’s biggest hits, as most audiences aren’t picky enough to resist giving their money to the corporation that will seemingly one day rule the world.
The Lion King opens in theaters on July 19.