Disney’s new version of The Lion King is a well-executed bad idea, a live-action remake in which there is no live action. Instead, its uncannily lifelike animals were all created with visual effects. As a purely technical achievement, the new CGI cast of The Lion King is impressive. As a means to tell its fictional story, it is deeply misguided.

The animals still talk and sing, as they did in the original hand-drawn feature from 1994, but now they largely behave like animals in a nature documentary rather than cartoon characters. That limits what they can do onscreen and, even worse, limits what they can express in their fuzzy little faces, which remain placid and static no matter the circumstances. Adorable baby Simba looks basically the same whether he’s singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” or running for his life from a deadly stampede. The voice actors give big, emotional performances that feel totally disconnected from their photoreal yet blank counterparts. Naturalism just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as an aesthetic for a musical about a wayward lion who runs away from home and bonds with a wisecracking meerkat and a flatulent warthog who occasionally make references to other Disney movies.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Before Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover once he grows up) leaves the Pride Lands, he first learns at the paw of his wise father Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who teaches him about the “circle of life” that connects all living things and maintains balance in the natural world. The new Lion King’s opening sequence, an almost shot-for-shot remake of the one from the first Lion King featuring the famous “Circle of Life” song and the arrival of baby Simba, is the remake’s best sequence, because it contains no distracting dialogue or lyrics to highlight the incongruity between the images and the material. If the whole movie had been reinterpreted in this style, the new visual approach might have worked.

Disney

Instead, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson stay close to the existing Lion King film, with Simba manipulated by his covetous uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) before joining up with the laid-back Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Eichner and Rogen’s comic riffing is this update’s sole bright spot, and the only part of 2019’s Lion King that feels fresh and modern. It’s also nice to hear Jones back as Mufasa; his voice still has its remarkable richness and tone. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role.

Otherwise, Favreau’s The Lion King feels like a bad Xerox of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s; the colors aren’t as sharp, the characters aren’t as crisply performed, and everything feels a little fuzzier and more diffuse. While the traditionally animated Lion King ran a sleek 88 minutes, the update spreads the exact same story across two full, lifeless hours by adding a new song, more dialogue, and one sequence that follows a tuft of Simba’s fur through the wilderness as another illustration of the circle of life. The stiff, muted animal performances are matched by the general look of the film, credited to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, which swaps all the vibrant emerald, ochre, and sapphire of the 2D animated Lion King for a palette of brown, tan, khaki, and additional brown. The new film is a lot less fun to look at than the old one.

It’s also less fun to listen to. While the classic Elton John and Tim Rice Lion King songs return, their renditions here are either nearly identical to the old ones (“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”) or drastically inferior. (Neither Rogen or Ejiofor appear to be particularly good singers, a fact that hurts “Hakuna Matata” and “Be Prepared.”) Even Beyoncé, who plays Simba’s love interest Nala, fares poorly. She brings some twists to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” but her new addition to the soundtrack, “Spirit,” isn’t in the same league as any of the John/Rice tracks.

Disney

The standard defense of remakes is that they’re no different than stage revivals of classic Shakespeare plays — and The Lion King has more than a little Hamlet in its tale of an uncle and nephew warring for a wise king’s throne. Just because the text is Shakespeare, though, doesn’t mean any specific production is worthy of its author, and that’s the case with the new Lion King. Plus, while theatrical productions are limited to their time on stage, you can go buy a copy of the old The Lion King right now. It’s hard to imagine anyone, given the choice and equal availability, preferring 2019’s The Lion King over 1994’s.

Additional Thoughts:

-Julie Taymor, who directed the still-popular Broadway version of The Lion King is a credited executive producer on this film. Why didn’t Disney get her to direct this movie?

-On the scale of complaints, this is a minor one. But why is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” set entirely during the day in this version? Isn’t that song about, like, the love tonight?

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