Disney's cherished 1994 animated adventure gets a high-tech, live-action sheen—and loses some heart in the process.
Review by Joshua Rothkopf
Something is off about this defiantly unmagical remake of The Lion King, a film that is both photorealistic—down to every artfully crafted lens flare and whisker on Simba’s chin—and the furthest thing from real. It’ll either mildly disturb you or make you feel like your skin is on backward. Granted, it’s still The Lion King: still a study piece of Hamlet-derived musical theater, only with 100 percent more Beyoncé, which is never a bad thing. (Look deep into the lemon eyes of her lioness, Nala, and you can swear you see her.) But Disney’s animated movies have traditionally been invitations to dream bigger than nature; even when you go to one of its theme parks, you submit to pretending. This new Lion King is an invader of the real world, its characters akin to stuffed trophies mounted on the wall. They’re lifelike, yes, but somehow not alive.
Almost certainly, kids aren’t going to mind this, even as their imaginations get a little shortchanged. Set in one of Africa’s uncannier valleys, today’s Lion King remains a story about talking and singing animals; no amount of digital work is going to change that. And vocal talent is what semi-saves this remake from Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s more computerized instincts. As the regal Mufasa, sensible leader of the Pride Lands, the rumbling James Earl Jones still has his Darth Vader sonority on tap. He remembers to give an actual performance, as does Donald Glover, voicing the cub who would be king with increasing surety. The rest of the cast is flattened out into two-dimensional reductions: John Oliver’s flapping advisory hornbill (panicky), Billy Eichner’s slinky meerkat (bitchy) and Seth Rogen’s sputtering warthog (Seth Rogan-y).
The sincerity of The Lion King—best expressed in the still-mighty “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” strongly sung by Beyoncé and Glover—has aged better than any of Disney’s goofier asides, and this update is smart to stay out of the way of that showstopper, along with Hans Zimmer’s shimmering underscore. (Elton John’s aggressively upbeat new end-credits song, “Never Too Late,” won’t be entering the pantheon.) But it’s not long before the digital weirdness throws you out of the mood again. Always effortful and desperate to impress, The Lion King may serve as a virtual substitute for going to the zoo (don’t slide down the Black Mirror cynicism of that idea), but let’s hope it never replaces such outings, nor its 1994 forebear, a passport to something far more sublime.
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