Disney’s recent slate of live-action remakes have done little but prove the value of the old phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.” As the company has dug deeper into its beloved treasure trove of animated classics, the animosity towards their eagerness to reshape them into focus group friendly blockbusters has grown from a whisper to a shout. Of all the Disney films announced for the remake chopping block, The Lion King is the one that’s induced the biggest groans. The 1994 original is probably the most beloved entry of the Disney Renaissance, the film that solidified Disney’s “comeback” as the real deal. In theory, it should be the easiest of their films to remake: simply dress up the original with the company’s increasingly staggering photorealistic CGI and cast some of the biggest stars in the world to take on the voice roles.
Disney did exactly that. Ironically, the result is a lifeless bore, an expensive exercise in futility that proves Disney’s dedication to reshaping their own works is nothing but self-cannibalism. Turns out nobody at Disney told director Jon Favreau and his team that turning stylish animated animals into realistic creatures incapable of complex expression might prove to be an awkward transition. While there’s no doubt that Favreau’s collection of visual effect creations are technologically impressive, they lack the emotional depth of the characters that inspired them in the first place. As a result, the entire film feels stiff as a board, never even scratching the surface of what made the original film such a formative piece of entertainment.
There’s little in the way of plot changes in Favreau’s new version, with the same Shakespeare-for-tots tale present and accounted for: after his villainous uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) betrays his father and king Mufasa (once again voiced by James Earl Jones), young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary as a child, Donald Glover as an adult) finds solitude in the carefree lifestyle of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). Years later, he must confront his royal past when his love interest Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) discovers he is alive, leading to a showdown with Scar for his rightful place on the throne. The only noticeable tweaks are the less kooky and more blandly threatening hyenas at Scar’s command (played by the trio of Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre) and Puumba and Timon’s sense of humor, which has been traded in for Eichner’s trademark sass and Rogen’s infamously guttural laughs.
Unlike most remakes or adaptations, where plot changes are often the source of the film’s cardinal sins, the problem here lies all in the mood. If the original film was like watching Hamlet in a candlelit Globe Theatre, Favreau’s film is like watching Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. The film is going through the motions, but the gravitas is nowhere to be found; scenes come and go with the energy of a lion napping in the heat. Favreau seemingly has no sense of what makes the original’s big scenes so iconic. Mufasa’s death, originally animated in eerie, encompassing fog, takes place in a boring canyon corner with almost zero emotional resonance. Simba, Puumba, and Timon’s rendition of “Hakuna Matata”, once bursting with slapstick energy, is reduced to the trio walking around the jungle and mouthing the words. It’s like someone gave The Lion King a couple Xanax and called it a day.
The lack of purpose translates to the voice performances, which achieve little beyond phoning it in. It’s a small joy to hear Glover and Beyoncé belt out some of the film’s biggest tracks, but there’s little for them to do in the speaking department. Rogen and Eichner are given lame jokes that simply riff on their predefined comedic personas, with Rogen’s singing coming off as unbelievably off-key. Even Jones seems to be asleep at the wheel, merely pantomiming the role he made iconic 25 years ago. The one exception to the rule is Ejiofor, who is simply too good of an actor to not make Scar his own. While he’s missing the treacherous smarm that Jeremy Irons brought to the role, Ejiofor manages to tweak his experience as a longtime stage actor into a performance that feels genuinely layered and menacing. In a cast filled with celebrities cast for their star power, he’s the only actor that brings anything truly interesting to the table.
For a film where the technical craft was clearly a massive undertaking, it’s staggering how lazy The Lion King ultimately feels. It’s armed with everything that should make it work and yet nothing on screen ever registers above a tired shrug. This is a film that wastes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of CGI wizardry on characters walking around brown environments and an original Beyoncé song sloppily paced over a montage. If Disney can’t make an adaptation with the biggest pop star in history and cutting edge effects work, they are never going to make their remake machine work. It may be easy money, but it appears the creative edge that put Disney back on top has been left in the elephant graveyard to rot.