The new photo-realistic computer-generated remake of Disney’s “The Lion King” is both a delight and a disappointment.
It’s a delight because it’s impossible to resist the lure of the powerful archetypal story and the splendid score. The opening number is still stunning. As all of the animals of the Pride Land gather to celebrate the birth of Simba, off-screen singers sing the lovely New Age hymn, “The Circle of Life.” The animation is dazzling, filled with vibrant colors and life-like details. The effect is magical.
Then the characters start speaking and the magic crumbles. Close-up, the animation does not work so well. The faces are flat and expressionless and the lip-synching looks terrible. RuPaul would send them all packing.
For anyone who needs a reminder, “The Lion King” debuted in 1994 and quickly became an acclaimed and beloved classic. The basic plot draws on rich timeless stories retold in the spirit of Shakespearean histories and tragedies (specifically “Hamlet” and “King Henry IV”). King Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones) is wise and noble and a playful yet stern father to his son and presumptive heir Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub and Donald Glover as a lion).
Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is evil and jealous. He kills Mufasa but convinces the credulous Simba that he is responsible for his father’s death. Simba runs away and meets up with Timon (a meerkat voiced by Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (a warthog voiced by Seth Rogen), two happy queer outcasts living a carefree existence on the edges of the Pride Land.
Meanwhile, Scar takes over the kingdom and rules with the help of a vicious herd of ravenous hyenas. Simba’s fiancé Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé) tracks down the missing prince who returns to Pride Rock and restores order to the kingdom. The story ends with a reprise of “The Circle of Life” and the birth of Simba and Nala’s first cub.
The new film is directed by Jon Favreau (who helmed the CGI remake of “The Jungle Book”) from an awkward new script by Jeff Nathanson. Favreau’s work is strongest when the characters are silent. The shots of Mufasa surveying his kingdom against a variety of African backdrops, backed by the magnificent Hans Zimmer score, are splendid; young Simba’s dangerous trek across the desert is somehow both visually stimulating and emotionally devastating.
The musical numbers, however, are a mess. Given the current state of computer-generated animation, the animals don’t sing and dance very well. In “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” for example, Favreau and company do everything they can to hide the mouths of Simba, Nala and Zazu (voiced by John Oliver). A lot of the action is shown from behind or in silhouette; this drains much of the life from the number.
Interestingly, one of the more successful numbers in the movie is the brief excerpt from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Timon’s a better lip-syncher than his colleagues and his jaunty walk through the jungle with his friends looks good and feels right.
The new screenplay sticks very closely to the outline of the cartoon, but Nathanson makes some rather odd changes to the dialogue. He unfortunately removes a lot of humor from the story; Rafiki and the hyenas become much more somber, less interesting characters. When Simba and Nala first encounter the hyenas, they are told that hyenas and lions have always been at war. The rather Orwellian language is unsettling, especially since the script was completed after the 2016 election.
The script also refers to the lionesses as lions, an odd move in a story where gender is so important.
Luckily, Favreau and Nathanson leave the queer utopia established by Timon and Pumbaa largely intact and give Eichner and Rogen plenty of room for their anarchic improvisation. Once again, the meerkat and the warthog are presented as a loving couple, even if their relationship is not explicitly defined.
Following the precept “Hakuna Matata,” they live communally and peacefully with their fellow outcasts outside the Pride Lands They’re just trying to stay alive and have a little bit of fun. It’s a nice contrast to the world of lions and hyenas.
The voice cast is strong, even if some of the actors don’t really get a chance to strut their stuff. Eichner and Rogen have an engaging rapport and their ad-libbing is very funny, Oliver, Jones, Glover, McCrary and Joseph all bring their characters vividly to life. Even in Scar’s madness and downfall, Ejiofor is all silky menace and Florence Kasumba oozes danger as Shenzi, the leader of the hyenas.
Unfortunately, John Kani (Rafiki) and Alfre Woodard (Simba’s mother Sarabi) are wasted in their underwritten and one-note roles, as is Beyoncé.
With a relentless stream of sequels and remakes, Walt Disney Studios seems to be in a slump, content with draining every possible penny from its classic movies. But for all its shortcomings, the new version of “The Lion King” is well worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find so you can fully experience the richness of the panoramic animation and the lushness of the score.
One note, since the hyper-realism heightens the impact of the violence, it’s not a great movie for younger kids.