The image fades up on a peaceful savannah, the just-rising sun giving everything a rich, buttery glow, and then that music hits: the unforgettable vocal of composer Lebo M that kicks off “Circle of Life,” the masterful fusion of African and pop music that heralds the start of Disney’s 1994 animated landmark, The Lion King. But this is 2019, not 1994, and a recreation of that same shot with that same musical cue now launches director Jon Favreau’s new remake–still animated–of the same beloved tale.
The effect is undoubtedly still powerful. Following his similar take on The Jungle Book in 2016, Favreau’s reboot of The Lion King opening instantly triggers a wave of nostalgia that re-emphasizes how ingrained in pop culture the sounds and sights of that 1994 touchstone have become (the innovative and still-running stage musical has assisted with that as well). While the story, music and imagery from the original movie–as well as a number of individual voice performances–do a lot of heavy lifting this time out, this entertaining but eventually forgettable remix starts to feel as pointless as the rest of Disney’s recent remakes of its animated gems.
I’m not here to completely dismiss this version of The Lion King, the third such film to arrive from Disney this year following Dumbo (a flop) and Aladdin (a hit). The music, with score by Hans Zimmer and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, is as gorgeous and inspiring as ever; Favreau and an army of computer animators have summoned up a plentiful bounty of beautiful images, some of them as breathtaking now as they were 25 years ago. A lot of the environments, as well as shots of the animals in close-ups, are indiscernible from the real thing.
The story too is mostly indistinguishable from the original and thankfully remains simple yet direct: Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his voice role from 1994) and his mate Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), the king and queen of the Pride Lands, welcome their new cub Simba into the world. But Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), thirsting for power, manages to kill Mufasa and send Simba into exile. While Scar teams with a nearby pack of hyenas to terrorize the lions and other animals as he plunders the Pride Lands, Simba grows into adulthood and must decide whether to return and claim his destiny.
The incredible leaps in photorealistic computer animation have made it possible to restage The Lion King with natural-looking animals in settings seemingly lifted right out of an episode of Planet Earth. But it’s still an animated movie; Favreau himself has said there is only a single shot of something that doesn’t exist solely on a hard drive. As advanced as the animation is, it still can’t recreate the colorful and varied expressions that played across the faces of the stylized animals in the traditionally animated 1994 original. Gaining something in realism loses more in emotion and expression.
Luckily there is a talented, diverse cast here to help. Stealing the show right out from under everyone else are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog who befriend Simba during his exile and teach him their “no worries” philosophy. The two — Eichner preening and showboating, Rogen gassy and genially dim-witted — are a knockout comedy team, and what surely had to be a certain amount of improv in the recording booth is wedded smoothly to the characters visually. The pair, particularly Eichner, light up the screen whenever they’re on.
Also bringing a formidable presence to the film is Ejiofor as Scar (voiced with indelible malice by Jeremy Irons in the original). Ejiofor’s delivery is plaintive and pleading, sly and saccharine, melodious and malevolent — often all within the same stretch of dialogue. He gives the brother of the king — the lion whose ambition has been rotted and twisted into greed and hate — layers that are new to the character in this version, making Scar a more multi-dimensional villain this time out.
Other standouts include the fussy, butler-like John Oliver as the red-billed hornbill Zazu, South African actor John Kani (T’Chaka in Black Panther) bringing gravitas to the shamanistic baboon Rafiki, Jones doing the same in his reprisal of the doomed Mufasa, and an energetic JD McCrary as the young Simba. But oddly disappointing are Donald Glover as the adult Simba and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as his childhood friend and eventual romantic partner Nala. Their singing is beyond reproach — “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is magnificent — but their line readings are flat and uninvolving. Glover sounds as disinterested here as he did as Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story, only mustering up some zest in the closing scenes, while Knowles-Carter doesn’t make much of an impression at all.
In the end, neither does the rest of the movie once the viewer gets used to the photorealism. The story is the same, the beats are the same, the dramatic high points are all there. Some of the characters have been revised (Rafiki and the hyenas in particular) while others like Scar are given more texture. The songs are still lovely, while Zimmer’s score is among the best ever for an animated film. The movie’s themes remain timeless and resonant. But a nagging feeling persists: Why are we watching this?
Just because one can do a thing, does it mean one should? With each new reboot of a classic from its historic library of animated films (Mulan and The Little Mermaid are coming next), Disney does not meaningfully answer the question of why it’s doing these other than for pure financial gain. That in itself is not inherently wrong, but the films themselves just feel increasingly empty and perfunctory. Each of them, The Lion King included, have their moments, many are fairly entertaining in their own right, and all feature top talent in the vocal booth and behind the camera (or at the keyboard). But even if the novelty of seeing “live-action” or photorealistically animated versions is perceptibly wearing off, expect the circle of commerce to continue until the box office dictates otherwise.
The Lion King is out in theaters July 19.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye