The ongoing trend of Disney remaking its animated classics as live-action versions has proven to be a massively lucrative success. The recent Aladdin has made roughly a billion dollars by the time I write this review, a sharp contrast from the underwhelming box office numbers Dumbo produced earlier this year. Now, we have perhaps the biggest one of all, a remake of 1994’s The Lion King, a cultural landmark adored by generations of people all over the world that has spawned theme park attractions and what went onto be the third-longest running Broadway show of all time. We have Jon Favreau directing, an obvious choice, as Favreau is coming off the success of his live-action The Jungle Book remake. So, what exactly went so wrong?
It feels redundant to even go over plot details, but in case you have not seen any version of The Lion King, here we go. Simba is the newborn lion cub of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who tells him that he will one day be king, and will rule over all the light touches. A turn of events forces Simba to learn precisely what that means.
I went into the theater fully expecting a shot-for-shot remake of the original film. In fact, that’s what I wanted. The Lion King is a film so integral to my childhood and important to my memories. I’ve watched it hundreds of times, and the idea of the exact same movie but with the kind of visuals Favreau applied to his remake of The Jungle Book was an exciting prospect to me. And this is, for the most part, a shot-for-shot remake. However, due to certain aspects, this feels like a lifeless exoskeleton of the film we all love so much.
Favreau’s approach of hyper-realism means the animals have a great deal of trouble emoting. These animals still talk and sing just like they did in the original. However, these faces are only so expressive, and as a result, when the film builds to an emotional crescendo, and we have these stoic, stone-faced creatures that aren’t reacting at all, it creates a line between the emotional core of this story and the audience, and that’s our central problem. It’s something that I didn’t think would bother me, but it did.
The film also ruins a great deal of the musical numbers, but I guess fans should just be happy they’re present in the first place? Favreau seemed to be greatly uncomfortable directing musical numbers in The Jungle Book, which omitted many of the popular songs from that film. However, the audience barely noticed because that film had more to do than act as a carbon copy of the original property. The Lion King’s iconic musical numbers feel sloppy and mawkish. The big villain number Be Prepared is relegated to what feels like 30 seconds of slam poetry set to music. All of the visual wonder of I Just Can’t Wait to Be King is gone and the Timon & Pumba hula dance is replaced by an awful Beauty and the Beast reference. Since this film went all-in on the hyper-realism, we’re missing so much of what makes The Lion King so fun to begin with.
The voice cast often feels like they’re merely reading lines, and nobody is particularly energetic. A notable exception would be Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who almost singlehandedly save the movie. You can tell they probably left the two actors in a studio and let them riff and improv their way through what’s on the page, and all the better for it. James Earl Jones, of course, gives an excellent vocal performance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they just re-used a lot of the old audio files from the original film and brought him in for a day of new line readings, and sent him home.
Beyoncé and Donald Glover are simply delivering line readings, and neither is a very impressive voice performance. Beyoncé is doing a better job, but they don’t give Nala enough to do to justify bringing someone of Beyoncé’s caliber on board. The new song Beyoncé recorded for the film is literally used for a montage scene transition. I also had problems with the Aladdin remake, but it at least made Jasmine a three-dimensional character. I don’t know why we couldn’t have done the same for Nala. I will say that the child actors playing Simba and Nala, JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, are quite good and have an energy that outshines their adult counterparts.
The emotionless, dead-eyed faces of the animals prevents the viewer of developing the emotional connection this story really needs to succeed. There are several significant moments of this movie that should’ve had me sobbing, and I kept rolling my eyes instead of wiping tears from them. This is a mostly joyless rehash of the film we love so much, and it’s horribly unnecessary. It wants you to feel the love and the magic of the original, but you walk out feeling nothing. You eventually feel like you just paid $15 to watch the same movie you have at home on Blu-ray, and that’s exactly what you did. A great deal of the visual effects are stunning, and are worth seeing on the big screen. Perhaps go to a matinee or discount price showing, but adjust your expectations accordingly.