Disney’s steely insistence on remaking every single one of its animated properties has reached peak levels of ambition with The Lion King. “Live-action” this may market itself as being, but as we all know, it most definitely is not….because talking lions.
Of the movie’s 1,600 shots, in fact, there is just one that is actually live-action. Even with several rewatches, I’m convinced you’d be hard pushed to pick it out though. Director Jon Favreau – on his second Disney remake following The Jungle Book – takes the level of authenticity he achieved with that film’s created world and doubles down on it. From rain on fur and dust kicking up from paw prints, to expansive jungle canopies, it’s the attention to detail that sells it. Animation has rarely come closer than this to recreating reality so accurately. A technical marvel, for sure, but one which comes at the sacrifice of style, colour and creativity.
The vibrancy of the original is dialled back significantly, in the character designs and in the environments which they inhabit. As though plucked straight out of a nature documentary, the animals unquestionably bear a striking resemblance to their real-life equals. But for the lions, this basically means that many of them look near-identical. Young Nala and Simba, in particular, suffer from this most, both interchangeable during their livelier scenes. 100% adorable, undoubtedly life-like, but lacking the visual flair and the individuality that their 1994 equivalents possessed.
At least the same can’t be said of Scar, the most stylistically distinct of the pride. His terrifyingly mangy, ragged and gaunt appearance is matched by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s deliciously evil voicework. Permanently snarling and full of bitterness, he’s the best of the lions by a stretch (even if one of his bigger moments is one of the film’s greatest missteps, but I’ll get to that later). He also manages to sidestep the greatest issue that the film has: the believability of the animal’s speech. There’s a clear disconnect between the vocal performances of the actors and the emotional range that their animated counterparts are capable of portraying. When Simba is excited, his face is neutral. Zazu grows flustered, his face is neutral. It’s the same across the board. Scar fares better here than the majority, all anger, rage and displays of power, i.e. things you might expect from an actual lion.
It’s a problem which lies with the difficulties of having photo-realistic animals convincingly emote, however, rather than with the actors themselves, who are largely perfectly solid. Ejiofor is the standout. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumbaa are a blast. And James Earl Jones – the only returning cast member from the original – is Mufasa. Beyoncé (Nala) goes a bit overboard in her rendition of ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, but recovers with ‘Spirit’, one of just a handful of additions to the soundtrack. The rest of the performers fall somewhere in between. Not an improvement on the 1994 lineup, but not lesser incarnations either.
It’s exactly this, The Lion King’s inability to elevate itself beyond its predecessor, that defines it. The parts it repeats shot for shot from the original (a significant chunk of it) retain their impact, but lose their freshness. It gets more interesting, for better and for worse, when alterations and additions are made. Some changes are through necessity: realism dictates that ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ loses its rambunctious flurry of feathers. Others attempt to reinvigorate proceedings: Timon and Pumbaa come armed with a brand-new routine of jokes, riffing off one another to hilarious effect. Connective tissue is added that helps with the narrative flow and beefs up Nala’s role a touch. And music-wise, an expanded upon edition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ is a pleasant surprise. The other musical revisions are detrimental: ‘Hakuna Matata’ removes all subtlety from its big punchline, a Beauty and the Beast reference simply confuses, and ‘Be Prepared’ – Scar’s imperious power grab – becomes a baffling sing-talking trainwreck.
If much of this seems nitpicky, it’s probably because it is. Just in their existence, these Disney remakes bring about inevitable comparisons to their source material, even more so when they’re modernising films that still hold a firm position in popular culture. But ultimately this is The Lion King you know and love from your childhood. Hans Zimmer’s score remains just as iconic. Rafiki triumphantly lifting Simba atop Pride Rock to ‘Circle of Life’ is guaranteed to raise goosebumps. And Mufasa’s tragic demise will make you cry all of the tears. Some stories are just timeless, and this one most certainly is. It’s just not quite as powerful on its second telling.
Rating (out of 5):