Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan, and Alfre Woodard
Like with most good things, there comes a point where the end must eventually come. The Lion King live action remake is officially that moment in terms of these cinematic cover versions of classic Disney animated films, where the wheels have finally come off. And this is coming from a guy whose power went out on the hottest day of the year, so he took his family to the movies for some sweet air conditioned relief. In other words, I was an easy audience to impress.
But impress it did not. Jon Favreau returns to direct his second of these live-action remakes after the 2016 hit The Jungle Book, a film that kind of jump started this whole remake-craze at Disney. I guess it’s also fitting that he also helms the one that starts its descent.
The Lion King opens with a live-action rendering of the opening scene from the 1994 animated film. It is starkly identical to the original, where animals all gather around Pride Rock to view the presentation of the newly-born king to be, Simba set to the excellent song, “Circle of Life.” This opening does succeed at programming the audience for nostalgia, and it is quite impressive how exact the animators were able to recreate this scene with life-like CGI creatures. Bringing back James Earl Jones to voice Mustafa serves a comparable purpose, setting the table for what could be a nice mix of old and new. Unfortunately, this similarity to the original does not end here, to the point where I’m not sure exactly what screenwriter Jeff Nathanson is really responsible for beyond that of the original screenplay from 1994. The Lion King sticks to the script more than any of these remakes have to date.
The plot of The Lion King remains Hamlet, Disneyfied. The brother of the king, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), desires the throne to the pridelands for himself leading him to hatch a plan to murder the king and his son, steal the queen, and usurp the throne. Simba (voiced first by JD McCrary and later by Donald Glover) escapes Scar’s minions; however, he blames himself for the death of his father and leaves the pridelands. In exile, Simba embarks on a journey of self-discovery eventually discovering the true meaning of duty and courage.
Ultimately, this film sounded like a slam dunk. Beloved story, cutting edge special effects, creative director, and some of the greatest talents of their generation. Ultimately, all of these talents are wasted including the two hugest entertainers on the planet, Donald Glover and Beyoncé (who voices the adult Nala, Simba’s childhood friend). Arguably the most impressive piece of entertainment to come from this movie is actually off-screen: The companion soundtrack The Lion King: The Gift, curated by Beyoncé. The music of the original film written and performed by Tim Rice and Elton John was always the keystone to that film, so arranging for the musical giants of Glover and Beyoncé made a lot of sense. That being said, their efforts on screen do not really deliver, while as a soundtrack off-screen they actually do. Aladdin, released earlier this year, did a far better job of creating a more sonorous experience even with arguably lesser musical content.
All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. The only highlight comes in the form of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s portrayal of Timon and Pumba, Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions. They represent the only segment of the film that attempts to find some fresh territory by playfully riffing on the nostalgia of their characters (and some other Disney favorites) while also truly entertaining the full audience from young to old.
This is also one of Disney’s more frightening and violent films in terms of younger viewers, and the decision to make it live-action only emphasizes the violence and danger. The hyenas are also more disturbing, which is a head scratcher because they are laughing hyenas. The hyenas do not even laugh; this is low-hanging fruit. While an attempt was made to add a layer of humor to their characters, one of which is voiced by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, that decision felt like an afterthought. An afterthought that should have been obvious when Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg did such a good job voicing two of them in the original animated film.
The Lion King is a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. C
The Lion King is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 58 minutes.