Live-action remakes have been around for quite some time (Popeye, anyone), they’re just much more prevalent now with Disney’s recent onslaught of remaking all of their beloved animated classics into live-action properties. I don’t mind these upgrades; getting to see your favorite animated films with real people can be a lot of fun, especially when the updates add more to the story and help develop stronger characters. The issue with these updates comes when a film relies too much on their predecessor (because, you know, they were perfectly fine in animated form), making them feel a bit lazy and underwhelming.
This is what happens with The Lion King, which isn’t so much a remake as it is a facelift; many scenes, including the grand opening sequence, are nearly identical to the original. Beauty and the Beast was criticized by many for this reason, though I didn’t mind it as much because real actors carried the majority of the film. However, because The Lion King is nothing but animals (no humans were harmed in the production of this movie), it’s hard to distinguish this version as “live-action” because the majority is still animated, just in a different way.
We all know how the circle of life works—after the lion cub Simba (voiced by JD McCrary and Donald Glover) is born to king Mufasa (returning voice James Earl Jones), Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots to get rid of both and rule the pride lands. After Mufasa’s tragic death, Simba runs away and hides out with a new group of friends, including meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) until his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) informs him of the devastation Scar and his hungry hyena pack have wrought on the pride lands.
It’s a simple story; what made the original work so well was the energy that the cast put into their performances. There was an abundance of whip-snap interplay between all of them, as well as a camaraderie that made them all feel genuine. Unfortunately, the updated cast doesn’t have near the same dynamic. And to be honest, all of them seem bored in comparison. One of the best parts of the original film comes from the kinetic energy between Timon and Pumbaa, and though the interplay between Eichner and Rogen is fairly good, there’s a spark missing in the duo’s banter that keeps it from being as quick, sharp or funny as Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.
This same issue plagues Glover as well. His camaraderie with Timon and Pumbaa are okay, but I never got the feeling that they were anything but acquaintances, which makes their decision to follow Simba back to pride rock less poignant. Glover is a fine actor, but his cadence and delivery are too dry to provide the necessary mix of innocence, regret and grief that’s needed for us to empathize and relate with the character.
The rest of the cast also lean much more on the mundane and monotonous, continually reminding you of how good the original voice cast was. Even the hyenas, who were so frantically boisterous and clever, are flattened in a way that keeps them from showing any life. Keegan Michael Key and Eric André have some decent interplay, but even that is subdued to the point of mediocrity.
I kept hearing the original cast, wondering why they didn’t just use that same vocal track and upgrade the animation (after all, it feels that way with every line Jones speaks). This didn’t happen when I watched Aladdin, mostly because those actors truly embodied the characters and gave them a depth of personality that separated them from the original. Much like the despondent pride lands, the voice talent in King is knee-deep in melancholy.
The Lion King doesn’t have anything new to say, either. Aladdin worked as a remake because it expanded on the world and brought something new and fresh to say within the context of the story we all know. I didn’t necessarily like all of the changes they made, but some of them worked well to enhance the original story. King actually does itself a disservice because instead of building on what’s come before with added nuance, it removes a lot of what that made the original so fun and exciting, as well as the deeper messages that came along with it.
Take Rafiki (John Kani) for example. In the original, Rafiki is a guiding voice for Simba; his guardian angel. He’s there to mentor him at the moment he needs him the most. His lesson comes in an extremely odd and playful way, but that’s what sets his character apart and gives him so much power. In the update, that character is stripped of all of his depth; he becomes nothing more than a catalyst without an ounce of character. The lesson he gives Simba that incites the third act is so watered down, it’s hard to understand why Simba has his change of heart.
On a brighter note, the visuals, the action and the musical sequences in the film are all incredibly well done. So much so, it begs the question: is the stunning animation going to be too much for younger audiences? There are some very intense and scary sequences in the original film, but those sequences were rendered “safe” for younger kids because it was animated. Because the animals feel so lifelike in this new iteration, those same sequences become much more intense. It’s no longer just a cartoon character; to a young mind, these are real animals in peril, which makes it much more affecting.
This may also be why the film feels less fun. It’s interesting to see the world in this way, but because of its scope of “reality”, the sheen is wiped away, making it more gritty. When director Jon Favreau then removes a lot of the best moments and pieces of dialogue from the original (again to make it more grounded) and not replacing it with anything as clever, it deadens it even further. It’s an interesting experiment, but as its visual appeal removes the breath of life, all we’re left with is a stunning two hours of pretty pictures with hardly any depth.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. If you would like to see a review for this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.