“The Lion King” is the latest Disney classic reimagined in live action film for modern audiences. Jon Favraeu (“The Jungle Book”) directs an all-star cast consisting of Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), James Earl Jones (“Star Wars”), Beyoncé (“Homecoming”), Seth Rogen (“Long Shot”) and John Oliver (“Last Week Tonight”) among others. The special effects are almost photorealistic, the songs as powerful as always, the story majestic — but the overall effect is a bit of a yawn. “The Lion King” is a fun way to spend a few hours, but its main appeal lies in hearing the Hans Zimmer score blast in a packed movie theater. Once the rock-concert feeling of going to see it has worn off and the film enters the post-theater portion of its life, it will lose almost all value outside of that of a nice visual effects demo reel.
You know the story. Simba, a young lion (voiced by Glover), must return to his homeland and reclaim the throne from his evil uncle, Scar (voiced by Ejiofor). Unlike the recent live-action “Aladdin” or “Beauty and the Beast,” this new version of the familiar tale changes almost nothing from the source material. It is an almost beat-for-beat recreation of the original with ostensibly better effects. The problem isn’t that the animation isn’t good. Technically speaking, it’s marvelous. But as was the case for most of the other movies Disney has chosen to repackage for a new generation, the transition from hand-drawn animation to CGI isn’t always smooth. In the original version of “The Lion King” the animals were not drawn realistically, but they could emote. They had human-like facial expressions and were easy for audiences to connect with.
The lions in this new film do not emote. If there were actors physically embodying the parts, they would be rightly criticized for being wooden and awful. Simba has the same expression on his face for about ninety percent of the film. Dialogue can only convey so much. Films are a visual medium — audiences should be able to feel Simba’s pain, see his happiness, witness his joy. The lions and other animals in the film may look more like lions than the ones in the original, but at the cost of everything else.
The cast is all totally fine in their roles, with Beyoncé and Glover bringing a particular power to their characters Nala and Simba, respectively. “Spirit,” a song Beyoncé contributed to the remake’s soundtrack, could not feel more out of place or tonally different from everything else that was written in the mid-nineties. As for the old music, it’s just like you remember it. Zimmer changes up a few things and adds some new wrinkles to old classics, but for the most part, it’s the same songs, just with different people singing them.
“The Lion King” has already made an obscene amount of money in only its first weekend, but it offers little beyond a cursory memory of a better film. It says a lot about the state of the film industry that all of the biggest hits of this calendar year are sequels or remakes of older movies and that the same studio produced all of them. Of the four movies — “Avengers: Endgame”, “Aladdin”, “Toy Story 4” and “The Lion King” — only “Endgame” has a compelling narrative reason to exist. When a Marvel movie stands out as being the most artistically relevant of a group of films, it’s a sign that the endgame of the theatrical film experience may at last be upon us. Hakuna Matata.