The Lion King was a big deal for Disney because when it was originally conceptualized, no one thought it would make a dime. It proceeded to be one of the company’s most profitable films, and then went on to fuel an extremely successful international hit musical. But the concept of a “live action” CGI driven Lion King has had many fans scratching their heads, and wondering if this was perhaps a bridge too far for Disney.
And indeed, the bridge was very far.
The clips shown on daytime television, showing the original film side-by-side with the remake were probably intended to assuage audience concern, when they did the opposite: They pointed out just how much style and creativity had been leeched from the original project for the sake of selling us another Disney product. Given the relatively warm reception received by The Jungle Book (which Jon Favreau also directed, hence being given the reins here), Disney clearly thought that they had a winning formula on their hands. But there are two key differences between these stories—The Jungle Book’s central figure is a human actor the audience can connect with, and because Mowgli’s story is bound up in his learning lessons from jungle animals, it still works when those characters appear more animal-like. It’s simply a part of how that particular narrative functions.
Not so with The Lion King. These characters are all we’ve got, and realism doesn’t help a story that never prioritized realism before. Why extremely anatomically correct animals was Disney’s goal here is anyone’s guess. But that’s not the only problem; in addition to the featureless CGI animals, the actual direction is overly-stagey and contains no thought toward dynamic movement whatsoever. As a result, moments of the original film that were stacked with drama simply… are. A perfect example of this is the stampede scene that results in Mufasa’s death—it looks like a very realistic stampede. The only time the stampede feels harrowing is when we first lose sight of Mufasa, but the rest of the time, it’s just a steady tread of many wildebeest. One of the key moments in the story loses all its momentum, which is then magnified when young Simba cries over the body of his dead father, but his face is incapable of showing emotion. All the tension of the story bleeds out, and we’re not even halfway into the thing.
There’s another problem that Disney clearly didn’t anticipate; the emotional reaction to realistic-looking animals is fundamentally different from the kind you get in a cartoon. When something is animated and more human-like, you relate to the characters more like human beings. But when the animation is trying to make your brain believe you’re looking at real animals, your reaction to their struggles is removed a step. In effect, watching The Lion King now feels more like watching a nature documentary. That doesn’t mean that you won’t emotionally engage with it, but your reaction to a cute real-looking baby lion is never going to be the same to a two-dimensional animated lion who reads more broadly like a human child. It causes a type of cognitive dissonance that removes the audience even further from the story.
The Lion King’s strongest point is its cast, who all deliver lovely performances that struggle to break through their expressionless CGI counterparts. The importance of casting a film that depends on the landscape and cultural heritage of Africa with mostly black actors cannot be overstated, and should have come with the freedom to really enhance the story and change things up. Unfortunately, none of these great performers are given material worthy of them, and sometimes the script actively hampers their efforts. (Chiwetel Ejiofor makes an excellent Scar in the first couple of scenes, but the film’s hamfisted and half-done iteration of the villain’s iconically camp “Be Prepared” effectively ruins the character.)
Sometimes the movie seems like it could have worked better as an audio drama, but that’s really only in the moments when the actors are given anything new to work with, which is rare. For this reason, Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) stand out as the film’s most dynamic turns by far, seemingly given more freedom in their space as comic relief. But it’s such a small speck of brightness for a movie that fails to inspire the emotion that the original evoked. In addition, if the film was so insistent on making the characters look realistic, they perhaps should have behaved more like real lions—but then that effectively ruins the premise of needing another “king” to stop Scar’s reign. Sarabi and Nala could have taken care of that nonsense well before it began, and Simba would be living with his adopted uncles/roommates.
There should be more to say, but there isn’t. The Lion King isn’t even interesting enough to warrant deeper critique or thoughtfulness. It simply exists, and it doesn’t do or say much, and now people feel obligated to take their kids to it because it’s summer and hot outside, and why not?
Perhaps it is the nature of the beast, as it were: Disney’s most surprising hit is the one that they’re least comfortable altering. But the ability to try new things is what made the original animated feature a success, the same for the musical it spawned. That Disney failed to realize this doesn’t bode well for this endless loop of reboots they’re keen on churning out. When half of the material they deliver prompts a “Why was this necessary?” response, the future doesn’t look all too bright.
Disney makes these films because they make Disney more money, and that’s no one’s fault but our own. Whatever the reason we have for going—nostalgia, the right actors (Beyoncé! Donald Glover!), curiosity—it’s enough to keep this machine running. It’s too bad when it’s equally enjoyable to just rewatch most of the originals from the comfort of your own home.