By Karen Gordon
The Lion King is the latest Disney classic to get a state-of-the-art digital make-over. The visuals are impressive. But looks aren’t everything. In spite of the obvious care and affection that has gone into this remake, the movie itself is emotionally flat.
The story is unchanged. Simba is a baby lion born to Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the King of the Pride. He’s presented to all of the animals in the kingdom as the heir, which further infuriates Mufasa’s already infuriated brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Scar is a villain with the temperament of a discontented mob boss. Although he plays the role of supportive uncle, he’s really biding his time, winning the little cub’s trust while he sets up a murderous plan.
When the time is right, Scar murders his brother, makes Simba believe it’s his fault, and advises the little cub to run away forever. And then, Scar sends a crew of hyena to kill him, ending that bloodline forever so that his rule can never be contested.
But Simba escapes, and finds two companions: the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and his pal the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). They embrace the little cub, teach him the easygoing philosophy of Hakuna Matata, and become his new family.
Then, fate intervenes and the time comes when the adult Simba (Donald Glover) has to go home and face his treacherous Uncle.
There’s no question The Lion King is a visual achievement. Director Jon Favreau — who also helmed Disney’s 2016 redo of The Jungle Book — has a knack for making action films with heart. And in the case of family movies, a tender one at that.
The process of making the movie broke new ground. Favreau directed this film in a virtual reality environment, which is fascinating to read about, and the blend of “live-action filmmaking techniques with photoreal computer-generated imagery” is striking.
As well, Favreau has an impressive cast. James Earl Jones is the only member of the original cast to repeat his role, and that voice! Ejiofor makes a terrific villain; Scar oozes menace with every word. And Rogen and Eichner make a delightful pair. Rogen has a voice made for animation. The all-star cast also includes Beyoncé, Alfre Woodard, Keegan-Michael Key and Jon Kani. But the stand-out is John Oliver as the fussy, constantly worried aide-de-camp to the Lion King, Zazu.
In spite of all of this good stuff, there’s a problem. All of the name actors and behind-the-scenes computer wizardry doesn’t give the film any life. The original, although only 25 years old, may look pokey when juxtaposed with the visual detail of CGI, but that old animation had a kind of lovable goofiness that is missing in this new version.
Most movies aimed at children usually are about learning some life lesson, and while that may sound pedantic, it’s the secret sauce giving these movies resonance. There are themes that could be teased out of The Lion King, but they haven’t been.
And the story itself is very old fashioned: a basic plot that revolves against an innocent versus an old-timey villain who gets his comeuppance. There’s enough discovery in the first part of the movie to make it interesting, but once we’ve heard about Hakuna Matata, there isn’t much surprise or interest there.
And that leaves a very shallow final act that includes problem solving that is basically a violent battle. And the realistic CGI treatment seems to up the feeling of violence. It’s always struck me as at odds with the ideals of the story itself, and a puzzling message for the target audience.
The Lion King. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Donald Glover, Beyoncé, and Seth Rogen. Opens wide July 19.