By Chic DiCiccio
In December, Disney launches their streaming service, Disney+. It will have the entire catalog of Disney films available and presumably, the 1994 animated hit, “The Lion King,” will be part of it. You are better off waiting and watching that version of the film instead of the computer animated remake.
This Jon Favreau-directed “The Lion King” is the prime example of going to the well too often. Its lack of originality and emotion stinks of a cash grab instead of an updated spin on Hamlet with African wild animals. It can’t be saved by an impressive voice cast, many of whom simply can’t sing. Even Beyoncé sounds toned down, no doubt so that the other actors aren’t blown out of the water.
Let’s get this out of the way: the animation is stunning. From the very first shot of a sunrise on the horizon, “The Lion King” is visually dazzling. The opening “Circle of Life” musical number is a perfect combination of song and film that hits all the right notes. All of the animals look completely real and it’s an impressive achievement in visual effects that couldn’t have been done way back in 1994.
Alas, realism comes with a price. Do you know something that animals cannot do? They can’t smile. They can’t cry. Cartoon animals do all these things, which humanizes them and allows an audience to truly connect with the characters. When young Simba’s father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, because it literally cannot be anyone else), is killed by his brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), there’s no real emotional value because we all know it’s coming and also … well … young Simba has the same look on his lion face.
That’s the rub with director Jon Favreau’s take on the “The Lion King.” There’s no connection. Even the joyous “Hakuna Matata” is neutered because Pumba (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner) are trapped in real animal bodies instead of goofy, outrageous animated characters. Eichner definitely has the chops for these kinds of musical numbers, but Rogen just can’t keep up. Even Glover, who has a musical background of his own, gets left behind with his limited range.
If that’s not enough, Glover has a duet with Beyoncé’s Nala, and it’s a slog. It’s almost unfair for anyone who is not a professional singer to be paired with her range.
There are a few highlights, such as Eichner or John Oliver’s perfectly nervous portrayal of the structured and proper hornbill, Zazu. Ejiofor is menacing enough as Scar, but his performance of “Be Prepared” is sadly embarrassing. James Earl Jones could read the phonebook and sound majestic so that naturally works. The emotional heft needs to come from Glover and Beyoncé, and too many times, they simply sound like they are reading lines. That, paired with zero emotional response on the animal’s faces, deflates the entire endeavor.
Youngsters who weren’t around in 1994 will adore “The Lion King.” Why? Because it’s the exact same story. It worked for 8-year olds back then, and there’s little doubt that it will strike a chord now. However, Disney junkies (this writer included) could be bored senseless. The “Aladdin” remake worked because the cast could sing, Will Smith put his own personal spin on the Genie and there was enough added to the story to make it feel worthwhile. Other than visually, this new “The Lion King” can’t come remotely close to the original.