Here’s a hot take that’s been baking in my brain oven for 25 years: Simba sucks. Hard. For the first hour of both Lion Kings, he acts like the savannah wildlife equivalent of a rich kid who can cut in front of you in line because “you know who his daddy is.” He then Houdinis after the literal first hardship he faces and only owns up to his responsibilities when a woman braves death to find him. His big moment is realizing he maybe didn’t kill his dad. What a hero!
Because they’re basically the exact same movie, both cinematic versions of the Lion King suffer from essentially being nothing more than narratively dull extended montages set to catchy songs. Director Jon Favreau’s latest mo-capture-mo-problems redux helps foster the arguments of everyone irate that Disney is essentially doing with movies what has always been done with classic theatrical material.
Conceptually, resurrecting a beloved work and putting a unique, modern spin isn’t just acceptable, it’s a tradition going back to the very origins of art. Heck, the original concept for The Lion King was “Hamlet on safari.” However, simply animating things that were already animated using a different animation technique is Apple-level fanbase abuse.
Considering that everyone in the whole world wildlife federation knows the plot of The Lion King, let’s skip straight to what worked and what didn’t. In the plus column, Chiwetel Ejiofor flat out Irons over Jeremy with an impossibly nuanced vocal performance. His incarnation of Scar is the only real Shakespearean element to survive this retelling. Billy Eichner’s Timon is expectedly hilarious but surprisingly controlled. Honestly, pretty much every vocal recasting is a decided improvement; the ruler of an African kingdom should never be Matthew Broderick.
What doesn’t work is, you know, everything else. Although the old songs remain brilliant, nobody ever needed to hear John Oliver talk-sing. The new songs are duds. An easy opportunity to play up issues of environmental exploitation by a narcissistic, clueless leader is wholly missed. Worst of all, the lauded CGI, ostensibly the whole reason for this box office smash-n-grab, is just okay. Actually, a scene where Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) gives a young Simba (JD McCrary) a bath is unforgivably outright glitchy. No matter how good it looks, no matter how sensationally rendered digital hair and saliva can be, computer graphics will always feel less warm and alive than hand-drawn animation. Thus, the new Lion King is a downgrade on an already previously suspect film lucky to sport a legendary soundtrack.
Disney’s live-action remake tsunami has not yet begun to crest, with ladies, tramps, and Harry Styles coming to drown us all. The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming Little Mermaid offers the slimmest bit of hope for something other than the safest, milquetoast rehashes of familiar fare. If these retreads can learn to actually say something relevant and new, maybe sitting through the inevitable big-budget, live-action Chicken Little will feel like something other than the sky falling.
Grade = C-