If "The Lion King" was sleeping tonight, who woke him up?
A nearly shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 Disney animated original but with CGI animals, "The Lion King" stands out as a curious entry into the Disney remake canon -- breathtakingly beautiful, impressive in its CGI trickery, but also a little wanting.
It's faithful to the original, but man is it slow -- those additional 30 minutes really take a toll near the end. By the time Simba starts his slow walk up Pride Rock, I had to mutter: "Just get up there and get it over with." All that paw-dragging can wear you down.
If you've never seen the original movie, this "Lion King" would be Exhibit A for Disney's imagination factory with its hyperrealistic talking animals and vast savannahs that play like the best bits of Netflix's "Our Planet."
But if you have seen the 1994 original, a sense of déjà vu might hit you as songs, dialogue, and entire sequences from the cartoon were lifted whole cloth and reanimated. There are no surprises, save for a riffing sequence here, a slight motivation change there. If you listen to just the audio, you’d be forgiven if you think it was the exact same movie – so closely does it hew to the original that it feels less a remake and more a retread.
"The Lion King," of course, is perhaps the most mythic of the Disney Renaissance flicks, which started with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989 and ended with "Tarzan" in 1999.
Grossing nearly a billion dollars in its initial run, the original "Lion King" tells the story of lion cub Simba who is destined to replace his father Mufasa as king of the Pride Lands.
His uncle Scar, played with delicious, oily glee by Jeremy Irons in the original, hatches a plan with an army of yipping hyenas that has him killing Mufasa while pinning the blame on Simba so he could usurp the throne.
Simba grows up burdened by guilt, but it is his remembrance of his birthright that sets him aright and leads him back to a final confrontation with his devious uncle.
There are no updates to the Hamlet formula in this remake. Not quite a spoiler: the evil uncle still kills a father to usurp the throne, and a son still goes into the wilderness until he accepts his divine right as king.
James Earl Jones stays on as the powerful Mufasa, while Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Scar as a more brutalized brother to the king. His Scar doesn't so much to seduce the hyenas, led by Shenzi (played by Florence Kasumba), but makes the argument that a new king is exactly what these minority animals need.
I once saw a pack of hyenas during a safari in South Africa, and realized they are not the laughing weaklings portrayed in the cartoons but big, strong animals, much bigger than dogs, that could easily take down a lion if they hunt together. Seeing the hyena pack in this movie, which included the hilarious Kamari and Azizi (Keegan Michael-Key and Eric Andre), shows that they are not pathetic goose-steppers but fearsome creatures in their own right.
Everything starts out really good in "Lion King." The spectacular "Circle of Life," which gave me goosebumps when Disney used it as a teaser in 1993, is a visual masterpiece – sleepy rhinos, towering giraffes, anxious gazelles, and attentive meerkats all coming together for a majestic tribute to the newborn prince of the Pride Lands.
As a proof of concept for hyper-real CGI animals, it absolutely works – those food-laden ants marching on a single stem while a herd of zebras run in the background are astounding to watch. Ditto for that wildebeest stampede, which amps up the tragedy over the death of a major character.
The hyperrealism, however, can be a major stumbling block for enjoying this movie. Right after that "Circle of Life" scene, you start to realize – these animals can't act. Every single lion in the movie has the same blank expression for lions in a BBC documentary.
This means that a song such as "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," sung by Nala and Simba, has two expressionless cubs running around while being pursued by an equally expressionless Zazu. The "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" sequence, which reached "Frozen" levels of ubiquity in 1994, fares slightly better – with 2 adult lions frolicking in the grass except you don't see Simba breaking into a smile after Nala gives him those feline, come-hither eyes. You also have a scene where Mufasa is talking to Simba and his mouth movements don't quite feel like they're forming the words right. It's a distraction.
Donald Glover as Simba has little to work with here, except for some additional riffing on "Hakuna Matata." Childish Gambino don't come to play here. Beyonce gets even less to do – shackled to a script that refuses to move past the original. If you have a singer like Beyonce in your cast, the least she could do was sing a few bars of "All the Single Lions (Put Your Paws up)."
Thankfully, there are 2 saving graces for "The Lion King." Timon and Pumbaa, voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, get the funniest lines in this movie – including one musical joke that was so good, it'd be a shame to spoil it here. Their every divergence from the script was a crackup; even their "Hakuna Matata" is better than the original. Just like in the original, Timon and Pumbaa provide necessary comic relief for this otherwise somber tale of kings and princes.
Which beggars the question: If you are going to remake a movie that has the exact same story beats and nearly identical dialogue for a story that everybody still remembers, why bother? The CGI is quite good, make no mistake, but I can't help but wonder if director Jon Favreau had taken those additional 30 minutes and tried something different a la Guy Ritchie in the "Aladdin" remake. Maybe fill in those years on Simba growing up and learning something different that he could have used in his final fight against Scar and his horde of hyenas. Maybe Nala and the lionesses start their own rebellion, except they're not quite strong enough to challenge the king.
Despite its horrible trailers, I can't help but think "Aladdin" did the remake thing better -- adding layers to the genie's story, including a framing sequence that wrapped up the story, plus hilarious dialogue and plot lines not included in the original. And while some may say it's unfair to compare one remake to another, they're all Disney anyway.
As it stands, "The Lion King" is a loving, reverential take on the 1994 original -- both majestic but inert, a little too safe and tame for the king.