Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor
By now, denouncing a live-action remake of a Disney animated classic as unnecessary would be shouting into the void. Because as far as Disney is concerned, raiding their vaults for new movies to make is completely necessary, and they have the numbers to prove it: Cinderella grossed half a billion dollars worldwide back in 2015; 2017’s Beauty and the Beast racked up over a billion dollars in receipts; and Aladdin is just a breath under a billion now after just two months in release. So, of course, Disney is going to keep inflicting these remakes on us, no matter how many childhood memories they trample in the process.
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The Lion King is a no-brainer for the remake treatment, given that, a) it is arguably the crown jewel of Disney’s cel-animation resurgence of the 1990s; and b) 2016’s live-action The Jungle Book, which also features talking and singing photo-realistic animals, earned just a little under a billion dollars worldwide. It would also be a no-brainer to hire Jon Favreau, the director of The Jungle Book, to helm this retelling. God forbid it should offer anything new or deviate from the original plot, as evidenced by Dumbo’s anemic 352 million-dollar worldwide gross.
And really, why should it? The original screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton is operatic yet rollicking, seamless in how it integrates influences as disparate as Hamlet and Bambi into one satisfying experience: A lion cub named Simba (JD McCrary), who is next in line to the throne of his patch of the African savannah, is tricked by his wicked uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into thinking that he is responsible for the death of his father, and so runs away to self-imposed exile, only to reclaim his birthright as an adult (Donald Glover) after a detour as a carefree lion beyond the edges of his kingdom. The original Lion King is so near perfect, the remake had no recourse but to ask the original voice of Simba’s father Mufasa, James Earl Jones, and his regal baritone, to come back.
The Lion King as a remake exists not to service the nostalgia of the generation that saw it in its original form, nor even to be a vehicle of wonder for the generation of kids who are seeing it now (because those same kids started getting antsy at the screening I attended after the novelty wore off). Rather, it exists as a tribute to the technology that allowed it to come into being. What would a National Geographic documentary or an episode of Planet Earth look like with animals that could sing and trade witticisms? Well, thanks to Jon Favreau’s retelling of The Lion King, you won’t have to wonder anymore.
Still, the technology has its limits, and I’m not talking about the critical gripe that these photo-realistic animals are incapable of expressing any facial emotion, which leads to some visual dissonance when it comes to their talking and singing. (It’s a disconnect you should have no trouble surmounting as a viewer.) Rather, it is this technology that stops the remake from achieving the emotional highs of the cel-animated original. Sure, “Hakuna Matata” is still a rousing number—I found myself singing to it despite my best efforts at restraint—but it sure would have upped my enjoyment if Simba could crack a smile.
These technological boundaries crimp the storytelling in a number of ways. The most famous number, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” remains stubbornly earthbound because Donald Glover and Beyoncé (as Simba’s feisty lioness friend Nala) sing it in voice-over. John Oliver (as the hornbill Zazu), Seth Rogen (as the warthog Pumbaa) and Billy Eichner (as the undoubtedly gay meerkat Timon) steal their scenes as comic foils, while Chiwetel Ejiofor invests the villainous Scar with the right amount of menace (especially in his spoken-word interlude “Be Prepared”), but the heavy lifting they do as voice actors is readily apparent. And at certain points in the climactic showdown, the photorealism even prevented me from telling Simba and Scar apart.
Still, as Disney remakes go, this one has more lifelike portrayals in it than the wooden Aladdin. In a word, it’s…okay. No amount of critical sighing will prevent it from claiming the box office crown. And Disney will keep churning out these remakes, even as their emotional returns keep diminishing, because we, the audience, will keep showing up for them. So get ready for a necessary live-action remake of Frozen or Toy Story a few years from now…because we keep making them necessary.
Photographs by Disney Enterprises