In the CGI ‘Lion King’ Remake, Simba Takes a Cynical Journey Into the Uncanny Valley
Maybe you’ve heard of this little animated feature called The Lion King? Disney released the film in 1994. A young cub gets caught in the power-play crossfire between his regal father and his duplicitous uncle, then comes out of exile to claim his throne. Circle of Life stuff. Made a bunch of dough. It’s got catchy songs, tons of action, a few jokes, a lot of heart. This new iteration is that, but live-action. Except not. But, virtually, digitally, essentially, exhaustingly, also kind of yes.
THE LION KING ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones
Running time: 118 min
How to describe Disney’s $260 million remake of The Lion King? Incredibly expensive. And incredibly pointless. Jon Favreau’s breathlessly overcautious retelling of the Mouse House’s ersatz-Shakespearean crown-jewel dramedy musical is slavishly devoted to the source material. There’s almost no difference from its predecessor. It’s basically a gilded picture book.
It’s also a glimpse of the future. This version of The Lion King is top-to-bottom computer-generated photorealism. Everything is ones and zeros. The imagineers at Disney have accomplished a dumbfounding feat of technological wizardry. Every blade of grass, every drop of water, every speck of dust is, astonishingly, fake. So, too, are the whiskers, claws, teeth, spit, poop, and farts of the animals. Long live the new flesh: reality is now obsolete.
So, too, apparently, is a sense of vision. This super-sized mulligan is a dazzling example of the difference between craftsmanship and artistry. You’ll be convinced that the characters are living, breathing creatures. They’re all so real that it’s just as shocking to suddenly see them talk. Because animals don’t talk. Yet the material requires anthropomorphizing them. So the majestic grace of the animal kingdom, rendered with a great deal of time, effort, and money, comes crashing down in an instant. And here we are, back again, in the world of Babe and Mr. Ed. Is that hyena talking, or is he eating peanut butter? Looks the same to me.
It didn’t have to be this way. Jon Favreau is a funny guy who can be a witty director. To his credit, he allows Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen to make self-referential hay with their updated versions of Timon and Pumbaa. Their pithy, existential banter comes with delightful fourth-wall-breaking winks and asides.
But the suits! The bean-counters! Execs beholden to profit-hungry shareholders might allow for frisky tweaks to the comic relief. But don’t dare touch the third rail of Mufasa and all the other main players. So we end up with impossibly gifted talents like Donald Glover and Beyoncé basically phoning in their respective roles as Simba and Nala. We get Chiwetel Ejiofor doing his best Jeremy Irons impersonation as Scar. And we have James Earl Jones literally reprising his role as Mufasa.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and there really is something contemptuous about all the safe choices on display here. Favreau dutifully colors within the lines, but still conjures his fair share of occasionally breathtaking, sometimes harrowing visual splendor. The fiery climax on Pride Rock, with its fang-bared barbarism, even has fleeting moments worthy of a bestiary Renaissance painting.
Just imagine if Favreau wasn’t so straitjacketed by the sacrosanct script. Or the performers! You don’t hire people like Glover and Beyoncé to show up and cash checks. Imagine if the makers of Atlanta and Lemonade reconceived The Lion King. The Lion Queen Bey? Oh shit, I want to see that movie.
Instead, we get state-of-the-art pablum. The movie isn’t bad. But it is unnecessary. And opportunistic. The goodness is still there, it’s just shining through a heavy shellac of greed. As Simba would say, “slimy, but satisfying.”