There are two obvious ways to watch Jon Favreau’s The Lion King.
It can be seen, first, as a duller, plodding retread of the original 1994 Disney Renaissance landmark. But it can also be seen as a duller, plodding retread of Favreau’s own The Jungle Book, another photorealistic computer-animated talking-animal Disney remake with a leonine villain, a big stampede sequence in a gorge, and a fiery showdown.
It’s not hard to see why the Favreau nouveau Lion King pales in comparison to the original hand-drawn tale of a young lion cub who loses his father and his way before rising up to reclaim the throne. (I’ve always found the original underwhelming, but the remake’s deficiencies are equally inescapable for fans and non-fans.)
Less immediately obvious is why The Jungle Book works and The Lion King, so technically similar, doesn’t.
It’s true that The Lion King’s photorealistic animals — from the lions Mufasa, Simba and Nala to Zazu the hornbill, Pumbaa the warthog and Timon the meerkat — can’t remotely match the emotional expressiveness of their hand-drawn counterparts. Their faces are nearly as inscrutable as the subjects of a wildlife documentary.
The hand-drawn Pumbaa might have been ugly, but his body was mostly face, and Ernie Sabella’s boisterous vocal performance flowed into every stroke of his rendering. Seth Rogen is fine in the role, but few viewers will feel the same emotional connection to a photorealistic warthog. (The new Beauty and the Beast had the same problem, in spades, with the anthropomorphic household objects: Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and so forth.)
But that was true of Favreau’s Bagheera and Baloo, as well. Favreau actually made a point, a creative choice, of directing The Jungle Book animals to move and act as naturalistically as possible, avoiding movements or expressions foreign to real animals — as if it were a Babe-style live-action talking-animal movie in which the talking itself was the only conceit.
Why does it work in The Jungle Book and not here? The answer, I think, turns on a combination of factors.
Part of it, to be fair, is a difference beyond the control of Favreau or anyone else: Only one of these stories has a human protagonist. Young Neel Sethi’s Mowgli scampering across artificial logs against CGI jungle effects may not have brought documentary levels of cinematographic reality and humanity to The Jungle Book, but it turns out the difference between some and none is significant.
Substantial script changes were crucial to The Jungle Book’s success. Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera was never going to be as expressive as Sebastian Cabot’s from the original, but since his dialogue was completely different, he was basically a different character. This was even truer of Bill Murray’s conniving Baloo, Christopher Walken’s audacious Gigantopithecus King Louis and Scarlett Johansson’s immense, sex-swapped Kaa.
With The Lion King, the programmatic decision to follow the original virtually shot for shot and line for line — more slavishly even than Beauty and the Beast or this spring’s Aladdin — forces us to constantly gauge the diminished emotional impact of each line and moment, if we know it well, against the original. (I’m not a fan, but I know the original well.)
When Zazu bows, wings spread, before Mufasa in the Circle of Life opening number, the original gives us a reaction shot of the regal beast gracing Zazu, amid the solemnity of the moment, with a beneficent smile and a nod of acknowledgement.
In the remake, after the same bow (a movement glaringly at odds with Favreau’s general preference for naturalism) comes the same reaction shot — except the photorealistic Mufasa can’t react: can’t smile or even nod his head in that gracious way. He just has resting lion face.
Even if you’ve never seen the original, the recreated “reaction” shot has no purpose, except to illustrate the emotional limitations of photorealism compared to hand-drawn animation. So part of why Favreau’s approach worked better in The Jungle Book is simply that he didn’t bother with pointless reaction shots.
One specific revision that helped The Jungle Book was the shrewd choice to cut or minimize the musical numbers. Needless to say, that would be unthinkable with a 1990s Renaissance classic with a Broadway musical adaptation. So Favreau plows through one musical number after another, serving only to underscore that photorealistic animals should not do music numbers.
The singing characters of the Disney Renaissance were cartoony Broadway stars (and were generally voiced by actual Broadway or opera singers). They struck dramatic poses, emoted, tossed their heads: whatever helped to sell it. That infusion of Broadway energy was, indeed, the Disney Renaissance’s key innovation.
The original I Just Can’t Wait to Be King is a zany Busby Berkeley production number. Stylistically it’s glaringly at odds with the naturalistic grandeur of the Circle of Life sequence (part of the reason I don’t like The Lion King is its aesthetic and tonal inconsistencies), but clearly the energetic animation is at least half the justification for the sequence.
Which means the new I Just Can’t Wait to Be King is distinguished primarily by its visual dullness. This is even truer of Hakuna Matata, the worst song in the lineup, as Simba trots along with unnaturally rhythmic movements (more eroding naturalism), sort of bouncing in time with the music but not swinging his head, and definitely not swinging on a vine before plunging into a pond and washing ashore.
The flip side is that Favreau can’t add more of what photorealism does well: for example, large-scale action.
Favreau’s Jungle Book threw its hero into a buffalo stampede overtly reminiscent of The Lion King’s wildebeest stampede. (Notably, the 1994 stampede sequence incorporated computer animation.) That bodes well for the nouveau stampede, a strong sequence.
But The Jungle Book also invented a thrilling chase sequence in an ancient stone temple and turned the final showdown with the tiger Shere Khan into an immense set piece in the branches above a raging forest fire. More action might have served the nouveau Lion King well, but there’s no opportunity.
Voice casting is a mixed bag.
James Earl Jones reprises Mufasa, which both helps and hurts, heightening the disconnect between the Mufasa of our memories and the dead-eyed synthes-lion. (Some line readings lose something compared to the original, perhaps partly because Jones is now in his late 80s.)
As Simba and Nala, neither Donald Glover nor Beyoncé make much of an impression in the speaking parts. Casting Beyoncé pays off for Can You Feel the Love Tonight? — though the chorus is weirdly disconnected from the images of Simba and Nala romping in broad daylight. (It’s like the sloppy disconnect in Aladdin with Will Smith’s Genie singing about “exotic-type mammals” while ostriches run across the screen, except here it’s the whole song!)
Perhaps the theatrical flair of Jeremy Irons’ indelible line readings as Scar wouldn’t have worked in a more realistic production. Chiwetel Ejiofor is menacing and ironic, if less vivid, in the role.
As Timon, Nathan Lane is replaced by Billy Eichner, a comic and actor who sounds enough like the voice-over actor behind the viral “Honey Badger” video that I thought they were the same person. Perhaps the long-standing adoption of Timon and Pumbaa as icons of gay culture influenced the casting of Eichner, whose line readings are so flamboyant I suspect some Catholic parents will be uncomfortable.
John Oliver replacing Rowan Atkinson as Zazu might sound obvious, but Oliver is awful: smug and self-aware, with none of Atkinson’s endearingly indignant frustration. Atkinson’s scolding tone was the one redeeming element in the otherwise insufferable I Just Can’t Wait to Be King; Oliver makes it worse.
Is anything about the new film better? Perhaps.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, lending the screenplay the lightest of polishes, gives Mufasa some nice lines connecting true kingship with responsibility rather than privilege. (“Others search for what they can take; a true king searches for what he can give.”)
Strengthening thematic ties to Hamlet, Scar wants his dead brother’s wife Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) as his “queen.” (In a deleted scene from the original, and, I understand, in the Broadway play, Scar’s designs queasily focus on Nala.)
This at least gives Sarabi a bit more to do — i.e., to defy Scar — although the implied monogamy in what is obviously a harem social unit is even odder here than in the cartoony original. There’s also some effort to give Nala a more active role, though, like Jasmine in Aladdin, she’s hampered by the limits of the original story.
The remake is clearer that Pumbaa and especially Timon are not role models but bad influences.
Besides goofing off (Hakuna matata is Swahili for “No problems,” but Timon uses it to mean “Don’t sweat anything”), the meerkat’s outlook includes rejecting the idea of a “circle of life” in which interconnectedness implies mutual responsibility.
Life, Timon suggests, is less a “circle” than a “meaningless line of indifference” ending with annihilation at death. Eventually, though, Timon has a change of heart and opens up to the idea of meaning and responsibility.
Nihilism is startling terrain in a Disney cartoon, but I can’t be entirely down on a family film that proposes nihilism only to reject it — especially one that celebrates royalty and hierarchy and includes a fuzzily spiritual afterlife and elements of religious ritual.
There is one (1) laugh-out-loud funny new joke, turning on our nostalgia not for The Lion King but for another Renaissance film.
That’s about it, I think.
The melancholy thing is that, of the three Renaissance cartoons adapted to date, The Lion King was the one I felt had the most room for improvement — and, after The Jungle Book, Favreau was the one guy I would have liked to see take a shot at it.
Simba’s story, in outline, is not a bad story. The main problem is Simba himself: a passive, incurious protagonist who has no defining desires or traits, makes little effort to figure out or decide anything for himself, learns no life lessons by experience and always passively accepts someone else’s interpretation of what he should do and be.
His story could have been reworked to make him more interesting. Alas, the mission wasn’t to improve The Lion King, only to mount it as realistically as possible. Favreau wasn’t hired as a creative, but as a taxidermist.
Steven D. Greydanus is a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey,
and the Register’s film critic.
Caveat Spectator: Some traumatic content, including the death of a parent; animated animal violence and menace; a villainous lion eating a gazelle corpse; brief language. Probably okay family viewing.