Firstly, a disclaimer: I’ve never been a fan of the 1994 Disney animated film ‘The Lion King’. Despite loving most of the Disney animated canon, it is a film I’ve just never connected with. I find the characters to be shallow, the writing to be clunky, and the narrative to be lacking. It’s an opinion that has gotten me yelled at more times than I can count. That said, there is something undeniably stirring about it. At the very least, it’s a beautifully made film, with a majestic score and extraordinary animation, and it still stands as one of the most cinematic animated films Disney has ever made. Despite my dislike for it, there are certainly aspects of it I appreciate.
You would think that would make me the wrong person to review the new photo-realistic remake of this beloved film, directed by Jon Favreau (2016's ‘The Jungle Book’), and you’d probably be right. I had hoped though that, much like the stage production, this new version would expand on everything that worked in the original and fix its problems. To my horror though, what we have is a film that does the complete opposite. In fact, as bad as this wave of Disney remakes has been, they have reached a whole new low. ’The Lion King’ stands with ‘Beauty And The Beast’ (2017) and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010) as amongst the worst films the studio has ever produced.
The problems are so numerous that it’s hard to know where to begin. From the recreation of the iconic opening, you can already sense a lack of imagination and vision. This is a work created entirely within a digital realm, meaning that practically anything is possible in terms of photographic language, and yet Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel never embrace the sweeping scope of the African Savanna. Instead, the film looks flat and perfunctory, even failing in imitating the superior visuals of the original. The animals and landscape may look uncannily real, but the film is so fixated on this faux-reality that it forgets it’s telling a Shakespearean melodrama about kings, revenge and succession. There’s a weird pull-and-push between wanting to be a nature documentary and a faithful remake with no understanding of what it is they’re even attempting to remake. In the hands of a more visually-minded director, ‘The Lion King’ may have been a far more visually engaging film, but Favreau doesn’t have that kind of language in him.
Adapted by Jeff Nathanson (‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’), this new version sticks agonisingly close to the original to the point that it feels more like a facsimile than an adaptation. The problem is, Nathanson and Favreau make no attempt to significantly expand on the story or the characters. Instead, they stretch what was already there to breaking point, make the dialogue even more ponderous and self-important, and slow the narrative and the rhythm of the film down to almost a standstill. Unnecessary attempts to expand on characters like Nala, Scar and Shenzi only make them more one-dimensional, underwritten and redundant. Nathanson’s screenplay is so weighed down by the belief that ‘The Lion King’ is some kind of sacred text that must be respected that it ends up sounding like a bad biblical epic from the 1950s, characters delivering endless monologues filled with repetitive life lessons that sound as if they were written by a computer. Any attempt at humour feels laboured or forced, with some attempts so extreme that I buried my head in my hands in a mix of fury and embarrassment.
The problems in the screenplay are only exacerbated by Favreau’s insistence that the film moves at such a laborious pace. All of the vocal performances are aggravatingly slow, perhaps to compensate for the limitations of making photo-realistic animals talk at the speed of traditional human speech. It would be frustrating even without the original as a reference point. This also affects Hans Zimmer’s iconic score, now so slow as to be rendered ineffective, and the songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are mishandled in every single instance. Favreau had no idea how to handle the musical elements of ‘The Jungle Book’, but here it’s made all the worse by his insistence on photo-realism. It turns out that lions singing look like lions being constipated, and his only solution is to have them running while they sing so their weird expressions are less noticeable. Both the score and the songs are terrific pieces of work and inherently cinematic, but even here he refuses to listen to his material and allow their sweeping textures to inform the visual language of the film. I mean, ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight?’ is performed in complete daylight.
Finally, there’s the baffling misjudgement of insisting on fidelity to the natural world as much as possible. There is such a disconnect between the vocal performances and the visuals; what we are hearing never matching what we’re seeing. Animals cannot express the same emotional range as we can, so seeing an emotional human voice married to a blank animal expression never makes any sense. Take the pivotal moment of Mufasa’s death - the vocal performance from JD McCrary as Young Simba is chocked with pain, but Simba’s face is devoid of emotion or tears. Not only does it look uncanny, it also makes it impossible to connect with Simba emotionally in any way. These animals stare at us through the screen with dead eyes, without an ounce of soul or personality. To compensate, Favreau pushes for bigger vocal performances that sound horrifically forced, or Nathanson resorts to characters stating their emotions rather than the film showing them. It’s so unclear what Favreau’s endgame is here - why push for such an extreme level of photo-realism when it comes at the cost of the emotional integrity of your film? The answer is probably very simple - because they can, and because they know you’ll feel it anyway because you’ll be thinking of the original. This is a film that banks so much on your nostalgic relationship with a film over twenty-five years old that it doesn’t even feel the need to earn your affection on its own terms.
These animals stare at us through the screen with dead eyes, not an ounce of soul or personality.
As for the vocal performances, they’re almost uniformly awful. Donald Glover as Simba has almost no enthusiasm for the role, and despite her much-touted appearance in the film, Beyonce as Nala is woefully miscast and out of her depth. John Oliver is thunderously obvious as Zazu, and James Earl Jones is both too old to now voice Mufasa and seems too caught up in doing an imitation of James Earl Jones playing Mufasa, his performance lacking any depth or warmth. Seth Rogan and Billy Eichner fair okay as Timon and Pumbaa, but they can barely rise above the terrible dialogue. Only Chiwetel Ejiofor seems to be having any fun as Scar, finding a little flavour here and there, but again, his dialogue gets in the way, it so determined to make sure that Scar sounds "important" at every turn.
‘The Lion King’ is a catastrophe; a new low in the ever-diminishing returns of Disney’s endless run of remakes. There’s nothing redeeming about it, with every decision either ill-conceived or mishandled to the point of incompetence. In Favreau’s hands, ‘The Lion King’ is rendered thunderously dull, lacking in any tension or complex characterisation, taking a laboriously long time to go nowhere and never once justifying its contentious existence. Even with my dislike of the original, I was flabbergasted at how thoroughly this film never attempts to understand why so many people love the 1994 film. If nothing else, this film makes it abundantly clear that Disney has no interest in making great cinema or honouring its own legacy. They don’t care whether the film is good or whether you enjoy it. All they care about is using nostalgia to trick you into buying your ticket so they can make as much money off you as they can, and maybe if they throw some recognisable iconic moments from your childhood on the screen, they may even be able to fool you into thinking you’d had a good time. ‘The Lion King’ is the ultimate diabolical apex of the commercialisation of nostalgia, and its inevitable box office success will just prove how easily we continue to be duped and how thoroughly they have trained us to not care about the quality of what we see. If this really is the future of mainstream cinema, then we are in serious, serious trouble.