Life moves in a circle, “The Lion King” tells us, and, increasingly, so does studio moviemaking.
Close on the heels of “live-action” remakes of “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” and on the precipice of a reborn “The Little Mermaid,” ‘’The Lion King” is back, too. Round and round we go. Cue Savannah sunrise. Cue “Naaaants ingonyama bagithi baba!”
The remakes have themselves been a mixed bag offering some combination of modern visual effects, fresh casting and narrative tweaks to catch up more dated material to the times. Don’t count on a new “Song of the South,” but much of the Disney library will soon have been outfitted with digital clothes for the Internet era.
It’s easy to greet these remakes both cynically and a little eagerly. In the case of “The Lion King,” the songs are still good, the Shakespearean story still solid. And, well, Beyonce’s in it.
And yet Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” so abundant with realistic simulations of the natural world, is curiously lifeless. The most significant overhaul to an otherwise slavishly similar retread is the digital animation rendering of everything, turning the film’s African grasslands and its animal inhabitants into a photo-realistic menagerie. The Disney worlds of cartoon and nature documentary have finally merged.
It’s an impressive leap in visual effects, which included Favreau, cinematographer Caleb Descehanel and VFX chief Rob Legato making use of virtual-reality environments. Some of the computer-generated makeovers are beautiful. Mufasa, the lion king voiced again by James Earl Jones, is wondrously regal, and his mane might be the most majestic blonde locks since Robert Redford. And the grass stalks of the pride lands shimmer in the African sunlight.
But it’s a hollow victory. By turning the elastic, dynamic hand-drawn creations of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 original into realistic-looking animals, “The Lion King” has greatly narrowed its spectrum of available expressions. Largely lost are the kinds of characterization that can flow from voice actor to animation. (Think of how closely fused Tom Hanks is with Woody in the “Toy Story” movies.) Here, most of the starry voice actors (including Donald Glover as the grown-up lion prince Simba, Beyonce as the older lioness Nala and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villainous Scar) feel remote from their characters. And, in many cases, so do we.
It’s worth asking: Just how real do we need our talking animals? Do we need the feathered majordomo Zazu (voiced by John Oliver) to look enough like a red-billed hornbill to win the approval of avid birders? “The Lion King” may well be a pivotal stepping stone toward CGI splendors to come, but for now, it feels like realism has been substituted for enchantment.
That doesn’t stop an army of top craft professionals and an enviable voice cast from doing their best to inject some vitality into “The Lion King.” The familiar songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are back, along with a new tune by Rice and Beyonce, though this time, the score by Hans Zimmer, with Lebo M., feels more airy and buoyant.
Yet the degree to which this “Lion King” mimics the first is disappointing. (Jeff Nathanson gets a solo writing credit but scene-to-scene the film hues extremely close to the original.) There’s a sound case to be made that the tale, which has been running on Broadway for more than 20 years, needs little revision.
But the few deviations taken by the filmmakers make you want more. The role of Nala has rightfully been elevated and toughened. The most rope for riffing has been extended to the new Timon and Pumba: Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Taking over for Nathan Lane’s meerkat and Ernie Sabella’s warthog, Eichner and Rogen make their own shtick together and they, more than anyone else, give “The Lion King” a breath of fresh air, even as they make plenty of fart jokes.
Yet that’s hardly enough to warrant a bland, unimaginative rehash like this, let alone merit Beyonce’s imperial presence. Instead, “The Lion King” is missing something. A purpose, maybe, and a heart. The life expectancy of Disney classics has begun to feel more like a hamster wheel than a circle of life, and it’s getting harder and harder to feel the love.