In Jon Favreau’s remake of the 1994 animated classic, a young lion cub named Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover) is impatient to become king of the plains and becomes frustrated with his father Mustafa (James Earl Jones). This tension is then manipulated by the king’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) creating a state of crisis in which Simba must confront his own guilt and decide if he truly is ready to accept his role as the lion king.
The live-action Disney remakes have yet to justify their existence, at least artistically. Though some have dared to diverge far more than this, there has yet to be an effort to re-contextualise or expand upon the original work. The Lion King is unfortunately no exception. This is particularly disappointing as Favreau has previously made some interesting changes to The Jungle Book which traded the whimsy for some interesting insights. Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of production, promised this film contained new scenes and wouldn’t be “the same movie over again”. Unfortunately, the changes are superficial and there’s very little divergence from the original film.
Which isn’t to say nothing is new. Whereas the problems with the “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle were left to subtext in the original, Favreau’s film spells out the selfishness of the “live for yourself” lifestyle and emphasises the importance of destiny over self-determination. The film fails to tackle some of the problematic ideas of the original. The hyenas are once again villainous, but considering their main fault is over-consumption, they could have been re-imagined to reflect more modern temperaments and concerns. But they remain an impoverished underclass that must be kept under control by the bloodline of the ruling class. It’s also still unclear how Scar’s poor premiership caused a draught.
Most of the cast are doing impressions of their predecessors, many failing to find a unique take or new energy for the characters and instead come over as poor imitations. Perhaps a notable exception is Seth Rogan and Billy Eichner as Timon and Pumbaa. They have a chemistry and comedic ability that may even surpass the original players. Their rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is also one of the film’s musical highlights.
Another disadvantage the film has is that it’s easier to anthropomorphise animals through animation. The CGI animals in this film have been designed to closely resemble their real-world counterparts, and there’s a definite emphasis on verisimilitude. Consequently the adult lions look like sad big cats, like all real lions do. Sometimes a nuanced expression is possible but the big moments of expression are utterly dependent on the voice actors. Zazu also suffers as a character as a result. His beak is incapable of expression. Sometimes this commitment to realism feels at odds with the characters themselves. Pumbaa has lost his charming plumpness in favour of a slightly shaggy “urban fox” look.
The biggest emotional moments of the film are lifted straight from the animated film with the opening sequence and death of Mufasa being shot for shot remakes. It actually becomes distracting trying to remember if certain shots are new or remade. When the film does stretch it’s legs a little, it proves capable of great inventiveness. The journey of a tuft of Simba’s fur back to the prideland is not only visually playful but further illustrates the circle of life. There are stunning shots of the Serengeti landscape and especially the awe-inspiring night skies.
The Lion King resolutely fails to improve on its source material. It carries many of the faults and only imitates its many strengths. There are occasional moments of visual and narrative flourish, but the live-action Disney remakes have once again failed to achieve any kind of artistic integrity. Perhaps this is all a very ambitious continuation of Gus Van Sants supposed attempt to prove that art cannot be replicated with his 1998 Psycho remake. I just hope that future generations are given ample opportunity to experience these stories in their original, and so far, best form.