After a summer that was front-loaded with Disney-branded superhero movies and remakes, you’ve likely caught on to what they’re doing.
In the fall, the entertainment giant will launch the streaming service Disney+, and to make sure you, me and everyone we know subscribe, they need all of their biggest, most recognizable titles to be ready to stream.
In its rapid-fire succession of live-action and CGI remakes, “The Lion King” is the crown jewel of Disney’s golden-age run of animated movies in the 1990s. It has the cross section of having a built-in audience, ‘90s nostalgia, cult-like fans of voice cast members like Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover and curiosity about how a brightly animated, lively cartoon would translate to a real-life, CGI-created setting.
To that I say, “The Lion King” is a competently made Xerox of a better product. Director Jon Favreau and the film’s artistic team have made one of the most photorealistic computer-animated films ever made. In doing that, they also misread or ignore every aspect that made the original enjoyable.
Working from a script that’s generously credited to Jeff Nathanson (which I assume was just a hyperlink to the original’s screenplay, written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton), “The Lion King” does exactly what you would expect — provides a real-life, almost shot-for-shot copy of the 1994 original with a new voice cast.
It follows the same “Hamlet”-in-the-wild-kingdom plot, with JD McCrary and Donald Glover providing the child and adult voices for the heir-apparent Simba and James Earl Jones returning to give a more measured, tired reprisal to the patriarch Mufasa. Scar (voiced by less sleazy, understated Chiwetel Ejiofor) once again kills the latter and forces the former to eventually come back to Pride Rock and challenge him for the throne. You know the story from there.
In copying the original “Lion King,” right down to the same plot beats and jokes, save for some fourth-wall-breaking ad-libs by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, this shows what made the original movie so special and what makes this so dull and lifeless.
The animated version was teeming with bright primary colors, energetic characters and big, boisterous vocal performances and songs. Transferring this to real life means slowing down characters’ movements, muting the colors of the environments and stripping the energy from its signature tunes.
Two glaring examples: “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” transform from intricately choreographed, vibrant sequences of playful fun into dead-eyed animals running through jungles and riverbeds.
Favreau’s “Lion King” environments look stunning. The opening sequence, with Lebo M. singing to a sun rising in a blood-red sky and animals roaming across the safari, remains as emotive and effective as the original. Close ups of characters like the mandrill shaman Rafiki look like they were taken out of a Discovery Channel nature special.
The visuals can only go so far. Save for Eicher and Rogen, as well as John Oliver fitting in nicely as Rowan Atkinson’s British replacement for the hornbill messenger Zazu, the performances range from unsure to bored. Glover, usually a cult of personality, inserts some character to Simba, but he feels held back. Knowles-Carter is miscast, existing mostly to belt out her portion of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” and adding a forgettable new song, “Spirit.”
I have no doubt that a lot of effort was put into bringing this iteration of “The Lion King” to life. But if the goal is to copy and paste a 25-year-old movie so Disney can get another bag of money and, eventually, streams, why bother going out of your way to see it?
— Andrew Gaug | ST. JOE LIVE