Jon Favreau’s adaptation is basically the 1994 film in photorealistic drag.
“The Circle of Life” isn’t just the majestic opening number to a beloved film. It’s also a business strategy, one that’s raking in cash and growing increasingly tedious. Much like a Play-Doh contraption, that Disney sprocket keeps cranking out live-action approximations of animated classics (Pete’s Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, et cetera). On the plus side, the studio has nearly emptied its reserve of undeniable masterpieces (a Little Mermaid redo is currently in the works). Mind you, the originals were already retellings of classic stories (with The Lion King, of course, being loosely based on Hamlet). Are we, as filmgoers, destined to suffer a Hollywood-imposed fugue state, forever cursed to sit through an infinite regress of reboots? Quoth Babs and the late, great Donna Summer: Enough is enough is enough.
So, the current iteration of The Lion King is déjà vu all over again. Jon Favreau’s adaptation is basically the 1994 film in photorealistic drag. Of all the Disney remakes, this one feels the least essential. There’s something to be said about bringing Belle or the Genie into the “real world” by way of famous actors like Emma Watson and Will Smith. This story, however, is entirely four-legged. Disney is merely swapping gorgeous hand-drawn animation with gorgeous CGI. Worse still, it’s replacing Disney Channel cartoon wonder with Animal Planet docu-authenticity. Why? Who cares! These animators are the best in the biz. Just look at how that fur moves. Fantastic!
Getting back to the aforementioned opening sequence – it’s still a stunner. There’s no denying the jaw-dropping spectacle of seeing honest-to-goodness animals recreate Simba’s birthday bash. But after that proof of concept concludes, this Lion King offers zero surprises. It so slavishly honors its predecessor that every shot represents a literal retread. I was constantly anticipating the next scene or musical number just to see how Favreau and his army of technicians would pull them off with quote-unquote realism. Fun stuff, maybe, for a film class. But I was never fully absorbed in what is, inarguably, my favorite Disney property.
What a shame. So much talent is squandered here – Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, James Earl Jones, Keegan-Michael Key, John Oliver, oh and lest we forget, freaking Beyoncé (!). All are wasted. Only Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as Timon and Pumbaa, bring a modicum of freshness and zest to this by-the-numbers redo.
In the end, The Lion King’s fundamental selling point is also its fatal flaw. Favreau’s commitment to nature documentary verisimilitude sucks any semblance of humanity from this tale of grief and obligation. A fuzzy animal face, however cute, can’t emote like a human actor’s – or a cartoon creature’s, for that matter. Yes, the songs (by Elton John and Tim Rice) remain wonderful. Hans Zimmer’s score is still stirring. And that often-parodied cloud scene continues to devastate, 25 years later. Alas, these life-like beasts deliver stilted, almost robotic, performances. A hand-drawn thespian like Pinocchio would never appear so embarrassingly wooden.