Once more, but without feeling. Any sense of wonderment in Disney’s live action remake of its 1994 animated blockbuster The Lion King is strictly behind the scenes.
The saga of the lion cub Simba is a good example of the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” principle. Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub and Donald Glover as an adult) is expected to replace his father Mufasa as the head of the pride and the ruler of a land somewhere in Africa. Tricked by his evil uncle Scar into believing that he has caused Mufasa’s death, Simba flees and takes refuge in a tropical paradise where he plans to live out the rest of his days.
Egged on by his newfound friends Pumbaa the warthog (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Timon the meerkat (voiced by Billy Eichner), Simba lets go of his hunting ways, learns to appreciate the taste of slugs (“Slimy, yet satisfying”), and moves his hips to the song Hakuna Matata. Simba’s childhood friend Nala (voiced by Beyonce) shows up years later to remind Simba of his legacy and duty, as does the shaman-mandrill Rafiki (voiced by John Kani).
Sharp memories of the original film are as big an obstacle as Simba’s self-doubt. The dialogue has been reproduced word for word in most scenes, and even the camera angles are similar in many places. The characters arcs are the same. The music, which was a major factor in the original production’s success, has returned with new voices.
Part of the new production’s rewind-and-replay approach is James Earl Jones and his famed contrabass as the voice of Mufasa, Simba’s father. Jones’s voice and lines are so similar to the original that one wonders if he needed to have redubbed his portions at all.
Mufasa’s evil brother Scar, whose British accent in the first film was provided by Jeremy Irons, is now voiced by another British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. The difference in accents was never explained in 1994, and the opportunity to clear up the mystery is lost in the faithful remake.
A few extra scenes expand the original running time from 88 minutes to 118 minutes, which probably explains the odd placement of the ballad Can You Feel the Love Tonight in a daytime sequence.
The real achievements of Jon Favreau’s movie play out beyond the screen. Like Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016), which was also a live action remake of an animated film, The Lion King uses highly advanced visual effects to create animals, birds and insects so real they make you want to stroke the screen. From Simba’s lifelike whiskers to the nasty dentalwork of the hyenas whom Scar recruits, the computer-generated wizardry of Favreau and his team never cease to marvel. The remake cannot replicate the simple pleasures of the original movie, but it offers something else – the chance to gawk at the progress made in creating lions, vultures, dung beetles and baboons out of thin air, as it were.
One of the rare departures from the original beautifully illustrates the “Circle of Life” theme – the moment when Rafiki discovers that Simba is alive after a piece of fur shed by the lion makes its way to Rafiki through the food chain.
Is The Lion King Disney’s way of preparing us for a post-climate change world without animals? The new movie often resembles the wildlife documentary, which plays on ongoing anxieties about the damage to nature caused by rampaging human consumption. The Lion King plays out like an extended episode of Planet Earth, but with talking and singing animals. We may soon be living in a world in which polar bears have become extinct and tigers live on as photographs. Technical taxidermy of the kind practised by The Lion King will prove useful in reminding us of how these creatures looked and walked.
There is plenty of emotion-free awe, the dropping of the jaw without the accompanying skip of the heartbeat. The Jungle Book balanced its technical bravura with the presence of a single human character, the feral child Mowgli. In The Lion King, the animals are anthromorphised only to the extent that they move their mouths and wriggle their rumps for the songs. The lack of expression on their faces is in keeping with the movie’s commitment to verisimilitude. It looks more real, but the feels from the original cartoon are missing.