At this point it is hard to argue with Disney’s “low risk, high reward” business model for their live-action reimaginings. This year alone has seen Aladdin ride a flying carpet all the way to becoming the third highest grossing film so far. Even a film like Dumbo, which underwhelmed domestically when it debuted in March, managed to be a lucrative venture in the overseas markets. It is practically a guarantee that Jon Favreau’s The Lion King will not only top both of those films; but will also be a game changer for Disney as well.
However, one cannot help but wonder when audiences will begin to grow weary of having the same reheated dish severed to them in a shiny new wrapper?
Closely following the playbook of the 1994 animated classic, the film follows young Simba (JD McCrary) as he embarks on a journey that will take him from cub to king. As the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the lion ruler of the Pride Lands, Simba is the next in line for the throne; a fact that does not sit well with his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has long wanted the position. Living up to royal expectations is the furthest thing from the cub’s mind though. He is far more interested in frolicking with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and evading the watchful eye of the king’s counsellor Zazu (John Oliver).
Seizing on Simba’s rambunctious need for adventure, Scar sets a dastardly plan in motion that, with the assistance of hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André) and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key), results in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s banishment. It is in exile that Simba befriends Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a meerkat and warthog respectively, who teaches him the joys of a nomadic life. However, after accidently stumbling across Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) years later, Simba (Donald Glover) is forced to face the fact that one can only flee the past for so long.
Creating a whole new cinematic technique to achieve photorealism on screen, The Lion King is a stunning sight to behold. Blending photoreal digital imagery and state-of-the-art effects, every aspect of the landscape within the film is astounding. The Pride Lands feel alive and truly lived in. The care in the details given to everything from the animals’ movements to the pebbles falling off cliffs during a stamped is jaw-dropping.
While it is a bit of a stretch to call the film “live-action,” as Favreau has said he only included one actual live shot to see if audiences will even notice, the technology opens a lucrative new door for Disney. One that could allow for the reimagining of second tier titles such as The Great Mouse Detective and The Aristocats. As groundbreaking and breathtaking as the visuals are, they come at a great cost to the film’s emotional impact.
With so much the attention given to its realistic look, The Lion King is never able to capture the sense of genuine emotion that is often conveyed through the eyes. One of things that made a CGI character like Gollum so memorable in The Lord of the Rings trilogy was that his eyes and facial expressions carried both joy and pain. He was just as compelling in scenes were no words needed to be spoken. Favreau’s film, on the other hand, relies heavily on what is being said to convey these same emotions. As a result, this film is filled with beautifully rendered creatures whose eyes are devoid of a soul.
This sense of soullessness lingers over the film as well, as its profit-driven motives become painfully apparent when observing how much Favreau stays true to the original version. Much like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, The Lion King’s faithful devotion to the source material is a gift and a curse. The film is a near shot-for-shot remake that lacks its own identity. Every recreated scene, right down to the dramatic zooms, only serves to remind the audience of how great the 1994 version is.
The one benefit of this loyal recreation is that it ensures that all the iconic moments remain intact. Furthermore, it provides the talented voice cast with just enough room to make the characters their own without becoming a distraction to the narrative. Ejiofor’s Scar may not have the Shakespearian gravitas that Jeremy Iron’s version did, however, it is nuanced enough to still be a convincing villain. The standouts in this department though are Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner who ensure that Timon and Pumbaa are once again the scene-stealers of the film.
Though this version of The Lion King offers some subtle changes that better suit a “live-action” telling of the story, there is simply not enough to set it apart from the original. Take away the stunning visuals and its hollow core becomes evident. The Lion King may temporarily quench our insatiable nostalgic thirst, but it does not quite justify the fancier glass it is served in.