‘The Lion King’ Review: Stick with the original

The Lion King
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The best way to experience Jon Favreau’s remake of the 1994 Disney Animation classic The Lion King would be to buy the soundtrack album — actually, the audio of the film itself would do fine, if you’re willing to bring a sleeping mask or blindfold into the theater —and just imagine what the film would look like.

Truth be told, and this is where The Lion King still bests Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, the new cast assembled for the film does a pretty solid job with what they’ve been given, and their hard work at least can live on independently from the whole product. Donald Glover makes for a great adult Simba (he and his younger counterpart JD McCrary both sound like Michael Jackson at different sections of his life), it’s always nice to hear a new Beyonce vocal performance (no matter how dire the circumstances), and Chiwetel Ejiofor competes well enough with Jeremy Irons for the title of “Best Scar.” John Oliver makes for a good Zazu, Billy Eichner’s alright as Timon, and Seth Rogen would be a great Pumbaa if he could, you know, sing.

The songs are performed well, and this soundtrack is sure to sell millions of copies, as if that were in any doubt even if they were all performed on bagpipe. It’s swell listening on a drive home from Soccer practice once you’ve worn out the old steady favorites and need something a little new to spice up your average McDonald’s pitstop. But when you get home and the kids, having finished their homework before their scrimmage and being reminded of how much they love all the animals of the Pride Lands, demand to rewatch one of their favorite movies, you bet your ass that you’ll reach for the original. 

It’s not like Favreau isn’t a decent director, especially when working within the Mouse’s walls, either. Hired for this project based on his experience working with Disney on their Jungle Book remake, he has never felt more gun-for-hire and redundant. We, as a culture, owe a whole lot of our modern summer cinema to his skilled work on the original Iron Man, which completely shattered the mold of the mid-aughts superhero blockbuster, which pushed the genre in a sunnier direction than, say, where Christopher Nolan might have originally taken us. His work in children’s film, from Zathura to the aforementioned Jungle Book reboot are, at least, fascinating experiences set in enthralling worlds, even if they’re not totally successful at what they set out to do. That said, when he half-asses a project, you wind up with something like Cowboys and Aliens, which, well, the less we talk about, the better.

So why is he so stiff here, in what is presumably a dream project? It’s The Lion King, for God’s sake! Maybe it’s the suits, who want the path of least resistance to a billion dollars: after all, too many differences might alienate audiences, too many might similarities make the crowd stay at home. Perhaps it’s the script, which stretches out a barely 90-minute film by a full 20 minutes for no particularly good reason. Most likely, though, it’s the “photorealistic” visual effects, which, occasionally, live up to their initial promise: the gathering around Pride Rock for Simba’s christening has a grandeur to it, and the smartly-crafted animal models are allowed to just stand still for a moment as the music swells. But betting on the endurance of “realistic” visual effects is a good way to lose your money: does anybody talk about the Hobbit movies’ usage of CGI anymore? How about Attack of the Clones? If the filmmaking isn’t backing up those effects, they’re nothing more than window dressing, and they’ll endure about as well as a computer-generated Yoda.

It’s such a bummer, too: you can see the hours and hours of labor put into realizing Favreau’s slight vision. You can see each individual hair in Mufasa’s mane, each weathered wrinkle in Rafiki’s snoot, and it’s hard to imagine the amount of effort that went into making sure that those details moved accurately in the digital wind or glowed in the firelight. But they can’t solve the main central problem at the heart of this Lion King: how do you compete with beautiful, colorful, emotional animation? The palette is limited to varying shades of brown, which is understandable if you’re only able to work with the genuine landscapes. But, again, you don’t *have* to make things look like they do in real life, even if they slightly resemble it! That’s the beauty of cinema! We can have these animals and have them live in a world that evokes the majesty of the plains without having to accurately represent them. And they don’t have to look weird in order to do it!

The faux lions in this Lion King can’t emote or even talk in the same way that the animated ones could — nowhere is this more evident than in the musical numbers, in which the lions simply hang their mouths open, as if they’re panting through the nascent choreography — and thanks to the tyranny of “realism,” Favreau’s movie is almost totally humorless. Gone are the non-verbal jokes, which made songs like “Hakuna Matata” so magical and silly and enticing to viewers all over the world. Instead, the animated characters walk through the scenes, flapping their gums like they’ve got facial tics, and it leans so hard on its voice actors in order to make things energetic or soulful. Take a gander at this side-by-side comparison between the two versions as done by Cartoon Brew, and you should see what I mean. It’s so content to rest on its laurels — its certainty that all of you in the audience know all the words to this song and will be made giddy just by hearing it — that it forgets to be a movie.

Honestly, I’m as disappointed that I’m writing this as you are: I liked Favreau’s Jungle Book, and I have a ton of fond memories of The Lion King as a child, both of which lead me to believe that this film might be something truly special. But this remake is just so pointless and cynical that it suffocates any meager pleasures that might be found within the film itself. In pursuing a lifelike look and feel for this project, Favreau only succeeded in making something impossibly lifeless, like a stuffed skin inside of a museum exhibit. Both originally belonged to something majestic and splendid, and, in the name of preservation, both stripped of what made them so very special in the first place. Perhaps this will find a second life as the kind of film that people use to test out their 8K TVs whenever those hit the market, but, again, no one in their right mind would want this to replace the original. What a shame.