OK, I’m trying here. I’m trying really, really hard to see the point of the Lion King remake (beyond the obvious point, which is the money). I haven’t been a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes of its animated classic films, but at least I comprehend the value of installing human actors in these stories. Emma Watson can sing! The newcomers from Aladdin are worth watching! With The Lion King, that’s out. The old hand-drawn animation has been replaced with CGI renditions of the African wildlife. It’s just more animation and not necessarily better. You’re better off watching the stage version of The Lion King. If you’re a fan of either Beyoncé or Elton John, you’ll have the former singing the latter’s songs, which is not an experience you can easily get elsewhere. Other than that, this is crap.
The biggest problem is the source. The original Lion King was a huge box-office success in 1994, and I could feel the rot setting in even back then. The early death of lyricist Howard Ashman was a blow that those 1990s Disney musicals never recovered from, and without his wit, the original film drowned in sentimentality. Elton John and Tim Rice, the songwriters on the original, have returned to pen a new song in “Spirit,” and it’s a forgettable addition. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” receives a pedestrian rendition and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is missing any sense of anticipation. Jon Favreau takes over this, and as was the case in his live-action version of The Jungle Book, he continues not to have any flair for musical numbers. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson sticks slavishly to the original story, which means that Simba and Nala (voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph as cubs, then Donald Glover and Beyoncé as adults) are just as boring heroes as they were 25 years ago. Even Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn’t as fun a villain. Ejiofor’s big, imposing voice is nevertheless missing the malicious glee that Jeremy Irons brought to the role.
The biggest improvement I find is the hyena Shenzi (voiced by Florence Kasumba), who’s here promoted to the leader of her pack — a touch that’s consistent with hyena societies — and the Ugandan-German actress makes the character into a truly frightening creature. The nature photography here is wondrous, but Disney already makes beautifully photographed, dramatically inert nature documentaries. Perversely, The Lion King’s photorealistically rendered animal characters work against it, because they aren’t nearly as expressive as their 1990s cartoon counterparts. Somehow, Disney has managed to make a movie that sucks worse than the original. I’m almost impressed.
Voices by Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Jeff Nathanson. Rated PG.