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Disney’s live-action Lion King is pretty, but so unnecessary

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It’s a showcase for CGI tech, but it shows the technology’s weakness as well

Disney is getting better at live-action adaptations — slightly.

That may seem strange to say about a powerhouse studio that has more than 80 years of hits under its belt and now owns a good deal of Hollywood’s overall output. But even with its storied history and its successful animated films as direct templates, it’s taken Disney three tries in 2019 to produce a live-action remake that doesn’t feel like a half-baked bad idea in search of a paycheck.

To be fair, 2019’s remake of The Lion King surpasses watchable. It’s gorgeous to look at in the same way a sleek piece of technology — like a new iPhone or a compact, microthin laptop — is also beautiful to the eye. The tech team that director Jon Favreau employed to create his talking, singing, photorealistic lions and sweeping African landscapes offers audiences something completely new to watch. Every piece of grass, huffed animal breath, and footprint in the sand is rendered perfectly. The CGI level is a technological leap forward for film akin to what we saw in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018 or Avatar in 2009.

But where Spider-Verse had heart and emotion, watching the new Lion King is more like seeing Avatar the first time. Viewers will undoubtedly be wowed by the spectacle, and the culture will doubtless be talking a lot about the work that went into this film. Given how much money this remake is on track to make, it’s highly likely that, much like Avatar, Lion King will spawn a new wave of stylistic imitators. But will it offer anything new or lasting to the cultural conversation aside from a handful of new Beyoncé tracks that we don’t have to fake a subscription to Tidal for? Does it build on the 1994 animated original in any way or offer a new twist on the Hamlet-based storyline? Not so much.

The story is the same as it ever was. Young lion Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult) is the future king of Pride Rock, a vast land ruled by his parents Mufasa (James Earl Jones, returning to his role from the original animated film) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). When Simba’s uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fools him into thinking he’s responsible for Mufasa’s death, Simba runs away and comes of age in the jungle with his new friends Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). His childhood friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph in youth, Beyoncé as a grown-up) comes to find him years later so he can challenge Scar and take back his rightful place as king of Pride Rock. John Oliver (Zazu), Florence Kasumba (Shenzi), and Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari) round out the voice talent.

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

The vocal performances are spot-on, which is more than can be said for Disney’s other 2019 live-action remakes, Aladdin and Dumbo. But it’s also to be expected when tasking talented actors with mechanically copying an existing movie. None of these performers were tasked with building characters from scratch or making the classic film their own. They simply had to repeat what had already been done — literally, in the case of James Earl Jones, who rolled back into the studio to rerecord the lines he’d already delivered perfectly in ‘94. The hyena Shenzi gets slightly more lines (though not an enhanced character or significant role in the story), and Timon and Pumbaa are handed a little more comic business, whether that was scripted or gathered via Eichner and Rogen’s improv abilities. But one of their throwaway lines hits hard. Toward the end of “Hakuna Matata,” when the warthog-meerkat duo is ready to wrap it up, Glover’s Simba starts putting his own spin on a few notes of the song. Timon moans, “Oh great, he’s riffing.”

Intentional or not, this complaint about a few seconds of mock spontaneity in a film that could have desperately used a few original riffs of its own (aside from the glossy new soundtrack number “Spirit”) feels deeply meta. The 1994 Lion King is a nearly universally beloved film from Disney’s animation renaissance. Popular culture wasn’t clamoring for a remake. It’s hard to comprehend the logic behind doing one, aside from the projected massive payoff, of course.

Disney has even gone back to that well once already. 2004’s The Lion King 1 1/2 retells the story of the original film, but from Timon and Pumbaa’s perspective, with Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella returning to voice the characters they originated. For a direct-to-video sequel, it was fairly well-received at the time; Variety called it a “clever retelling.” It would be nice to see even that level of thought and creative ambition going into these extremely pricey remakes. (The production budget on this Lion King has been estimated at $250 million.) They’d start to feel less like obvious, cynical cash-grabs, cashing in on millennial nostalgia, and more like films with some actual artistic plan or purpose.

At least it’s a chance for Disney to show off its current technological standard. As impressive as The Lion King looks, though, it also shows the weaknesses of current photorealistic CGI. While it’s a near shot-for-shot remake of the original, this version of The Lion King lacks much of the emotion and expressiveness that keeps people coming back to the first. Perhaps one of the most affecting moments of animation in the 20th century is the way Simba’s ears go flat and his eyes get wide as he sees the wildebeest stampede approaching in the moments before Mufasa is killed. The terror in his eyes is fully evident.

Photo: Walt Disney Animation

The Lion King 2019 has the correct music cues for the moment and a hell of a realistic-looking stampede. But real lions don’t emote the way cartoons can, and in the equivalent moment in the new film, Simba barely seems to react to the situation at all. And the more fanciful, playful, and experimental moments of the original have similarly been erased in favor of animals standing around looking like nature-documentary shots. During the “Hakuna Matata” number, Pumbaa isn’t happily belly-flopping into a lagoon, nor is Simba awkwardly trying to swing in after him. While Nala and Simba are supposedly belting the final notes of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” their mouths are barely open. But hey, they definitely look like real lions. This lack of dexterity weighs down the movie, and again raises the question: “Why such a slavish remake in a medium that doesn’t allow the glory of the original to fully translate?”

It’s hard to imagine millennials, or even Gen-Xers, choosing to show their kids this version of the film in lieu of the animated original. But 20 years later, the score and soundtrack are still compelling (although half of the villain number “Be Prepared” apparently got stuck in a warehouse somewhere), and given that the script is still mostly unchanged, everything that worked narratively the first time around works again here. Someone who’s never seen the original version could probably enjoy this strictly inferior clone. But why should they?

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Ultimately, like Avatar, this latest iteration of The Lion King will likely leave more of an imprint on the way Hollywood makes movies than on pop culture as a whole. But the positive thing about The Lion King is that Disney is showing improvement with each of 2019’s live-action remakes. The trailer for the company’s next live-action reboot, Mulan, looks stripped-down and promising, and the casting for The Little Mermaid, along with hiring actual musical director Rob Marshall to helm, and Lin-Manuel Miranda to consult with Alan Menken on the music is a far better sign than anything surrounding Dumbo, Aladdin, or The Lion King. The new Lion King will make a lot of money, and hopefully, some of that money can be used to make films that have more artistic integrity, narrative ambition, and bare reason to exist. That’s the Circle of Life — or at least the Circle of Hollywood.