The 1994 Lion King and this month’s remake take Simba the lion on the same exact arc. Born to Mufasa, king of Pride Rock, the scrappy cub spends his savanna days boasting about royalty status. Simba’s ego and gullibility leave him vulnerable to Scar’s manipulation, and the death of his father thrusts him into the jungle, where he embraces “hakuna matata,” the Swahili phrase for “no worries” and the meerkat mantra for “fuck it.” His friend Nala helps him see the light: Being a king, being great, is earned — it’s achieved by shedding privilege and taking a brave step forward.
In the animated classic, the rightful king’s return is a triumph. In the photorealistic edition, it’s a self-own. No one involved in paving over the original learned Simba’s lesson. Ripping shots, leaning hard on Hans Zimmer’s original score, and owing everything to Disney’s legacy, The Lion King (2019) is an arrogant successor with no roar. Zazu puts it simply: “a rather uninspiring thing.”
There’s a tremendous amount of craft in The Lion King, and under the direction of Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book, Chef), a complete absence of art. The CG water really looks like water. The CG rocks really look like rocks. The CG plants really look like plants. The CG dust really looks like dust. The CG fur really looks like fur. If Earth transforms into a husk of its former self in the next 100 years, The Lion King will play an important historical role in our future. But unlike with this year’s Dumbo, which pushed past the plot markers of the 1941 movie, or Aladdin, which saw an opportunity for the underserved Jasmine, the team behind The Lion King saw no room for improvement other than a hyper-realistic overhaul.
That photorealism never makes a case for itself. The majesty of Planet Earth is how cameras capture the instinctual, unaware behavior of animals. The Lion King can’t tap that energy while delivering a shot-for-shot remake of a movie in which lions dance on top of elephants. The “realism” neither brings the source material closer to any African culture or ecology, nor nuances the characters’ expressions. From the very first shot, the movie is caught in a limbo between raw nature footage and the imaginative power of cartooning. Turns out, two lions’ flirtatious “play-fighting” is super terrifying when rendered as two real lions baring their teeth and growling.
What sounds like a Disney purist’s best-case scenario feels more like the switch from sugar-coated chewables to swallowing knuckle-sized gel capsules. The expressive animation that made Simba innocent, Pumbaa a riot, and Scar so devilish is ditched for deadpan animal deepfakes. Instead of the explosion of color and design that defined “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Favreau opts for swirling cameras, choppy editing, and exhausting amounts of running over the reality-breaking. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) chews up his scenes as Scar, but his number, “Be Prepared,” is also an unlikely victim, reduced to a rhythmic dialogue reading that sounds like Rex Harrison speak-singing Al Pacino monologues. The mood of the entire movie is “beige.”
The performances needed to be fabulous to make this Lion King something more. A few are. Ejiofor has a crisp edge to his Scar voice that breaks through the sameness of all the lion designs. Billy Eichner’s Timon is transcendent, popping up in the middle of the movie when all hope is lost and riffing with Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa like there’s no tomorrow. (If Timon were a nimble huckster instead of being locked into a stiff, upright meerkat position for the entire movie, maybe he could’ve won a Golden Globe.) In the gluttony of walk-and-talks packed into The Lion King, no one else registers — not even the great James Earl Jones, who returns as Mufasa and ensures the movie can’t escape the past.
Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter are technically in this movie, their disembodied voice-overs hovering over footage that so often obscures the moving mouths and emoting eyes. Their big moment, the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” duet, is a dizzying, crossfade-filled blur that carries itself with the grace of a soundtrack MP3 slapped over ripped PBS videos. The expectation is that a blockbuster remake has more gravity than a YouTube fan edit.
Combined with the photorealism, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s faithful adaptation exposes a thin plot that the original film glided through with expressionistic animation. The timeline is inexplicable, while Nala’s devotion to Simba — and their immediate romance after years apart — is a glaring issue. This Lion King tacks on 30 more minutes to the runtime, and uses none of that space to add dimension to Simba, Nala, or the world around Pride Rock. Instead, we get an extended scene of Simba’s fur flying toward Rafiki, which involves a dung beetle pushing a giant ball of poop across the screen. Real life, baby!
As The Lion King unfolded, I desperately wanted to embrace Favreau’s choices on their own merits. Yet each scene asks us to admire the recreation while pushing the visuals into the realm of the grotesque. The hyenas in the original are a wily pack of sidekicks. The hyenas in this movie are gnarled, slobbering animals who will absolutely terrify small children when they hunt down young Simba and Nala. More disturbing is how, for all the realism, Disney still optimizes the corporate synergy. Timon and Pumbaa’s fourth-wall-breaking shtick (“Every time that I fa—” “Hey, not in front of the kids!”) worked for every age group. Timon and Pumbaa performing 40 seconds of “Be Our Guest” is insidious.
There are glimmers of beauty and awe in the new Lion King. A blood-orange sun rising above the horizon to the sound of Lebo M’s ringing vocals. A god’s-eye view of a sun-baked Simba succumbing to the arid nothingness. A close-up of Rafiki cracking open a fruit to announce, “He’s alive!” They’re all moments first storyboarded in the early ’90s, when a team of artists was asked to bring an original, animated work of art to life.
The Lion King opens nationwide in theaters on July 18.