The Lion King, the newest of Disney’s high-profile live-action remakes of animated classics, is an exquisitely animated film that suffers in comparison to the timeless movie that came before.
Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is a beautiful achievement in photorealistic animation that rests upon the phenomenality of its original. First, a few disclaimers. I’m generally not in favor of any of the Disney live-action remakes (I’m a curmudgeon, I know) because they have rarely done more than cash in on the success of earlier, better films. And most are wildly inferior. There certainly exist a few exceptions to this (Favreau’s The Jungle Book, and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella), but none demonstrate the disparity more than The Lion King.
As I’m sure many critics have pointed out: the new opening “Circle of Life” sequence is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the original. Strangely, I was rather fine with that because it seemed to honor what came before. I felt that way with most of the sequences that leaned heavily on the original – why reinvent the wheel? But then that, of course, begs the question: why do this all over again? I could go on and on about the many sequences that retained the exact same essence that came before, and honestly, those parts didn’t bother me that much. The few additions that Favreau and his exceptional crew of animators employed didn’t bother me. I only found myself bothered when the film – new or old – failed to reach the watermark established by the timeless original.
The animation is stunning – truly beautiful and intricately detailed. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and a curse, because real animals don’t express emotions. I know that sounds crazy, but if we’re going to have the conceit of talking, singing animals, then let the audience connect to their emotions through their eyes. At the same time, we get to see a bit more of the beautiful landscape of Africa than the animated film can give us. Favreau’s direction lets us dwell on some nature that we hadn’t seen before, bridging the gaps between some scenes nicely. Moreover, the hyenas are truly scary, making me wonder how families with younger kids will fare in this new film.
While some of the voice acting is mediocre at best, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen (mostly Billy) stand above the cast as Timon and Pumbaa. They riff and give laugh-out-loud performances. They’re far and away the strongest in the film. They even address a major issue that I’ve always had with “Hakuna Matata” – emphasizing that this is a flawed philosophy, that we cannot stand by while injustice is done, and that our past doesn’t stay hidden away.
Donald Glover (adult Simba) and Beyonce (adult Nala) do a good enough job, and their “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” duet is solid. Timon and Pumbaa do a full version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” which is just delightful, and the other original songs fare well enough. However, some songs were downright weaker than the original, while others strained to reach its high bar. For example, while Chiwetel Ejiofor voices a sufficiently menacing Scar, his headline song “Be Prepared” is wincingly bad.
My complaint with each of the live-action remakes remains the same: it adds almost nothing to what came before — making The Lion King seem superfluous. If someone hasn’t seen the original (is that possible) before seeing this, they’ll likely have no complaints. Here, there are many different nuances, little vignettes that add texture to the live-action film, but overall we get nothing that we don’t get from the nearly perfect original.