Disney can already lay claim to the four highest-grossing films of the year; a stellar achievement it’ll almost certainly add to with Friday’s release of The Lion King. I can cite its preposterous opening-weekend projections as evidence, or the fact that Disney’s other live-action remakes—Aladdin, Beauty of the Beast, and The Jungle Book—all flirted with or surpassed $1 billion at the box office. Or, you know, we could just cut to the chase: It’s the friggin’ Lion King.
With a hugely passionate following even by Disney’s high standards—aided in part by a still-existing Broadway show that’s made billions since its debut in the ’90s—the company expects those who fell in love with the movie as kids to return to theaters and perhaps bring their own children with them to recapture the magic. But can The Lion King’s magic be recaptured in a modern, high-def update?
Depending on what you’ve read, Jon Favreau’s “live-action” remake—which is more or less extremely photorealistic CGI—will either change the game in a technical sense or reaffirm your worst fears about Disney’s soulless exploitation of nostalgia and old IP. Could it perhaps be both? After revisiting Pride Rock and all its furry inhabitants, here are the seven most important questions surrounding The Lion King—along with the best attempts to answer them. (Some new spoilers ahead—don’t go into the Shadowlands if you’re not ready.)
Is the plot any different?
The previous Disney remakes have borrowed heavily from the plots of their forebears while providing new, contemporary spins. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin remake, for instance, made sure to give Princess Jasmine a lot more to do than just fawn over Prince Ali. But Favreau’s Lion King gives up the pretense of freshness and sets itself up to be a near shot-for-shot remake of the original film.
That’s not an exaggeration: The “Circle of Life” opening is an almost immaculate imitation of the original scene, all the way down to using the same composition shots and editing techniques. (Indiewire’s David Ehrlich aptly compared the movie to Gus Van Sant’s bizarre ’90s remake of Psycho.) “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one way to read the very literal, moment-to-moment mimicry, but it also causes one to wonder why Disney felt it necessary to spend a reported $260 million on a facsimile.
The closest we get to significant narrative changes are with Nala and the pride of lionesses, who get a little more screentime after Mufasa’s death—including a scene in which Nala escapes from Scar and his band of hyenas before her rendezvous with grown-up Simba. Granted, it’s easy to look at that storytelling choice as a way to not completely waste Beyoncé’s highly valuable time, but it’s also an assurance that there is some modicum of difference between the two films.
The other noticeable change has to do with Simba’s … hair? No, seriously. Remember when Rafiki catches some of Simba’s dust and realizes that he’s still alive in the original movie? Well, the new Lion King extrapolates that process as much as possible, following a small tuft from Simba’s mane as it floats through the wind, catches the current of a river, lands on a tree, gets eaten by a giraffe, pooped out by said giraffe, and turned into a dung ball by a dung beetle before making its way to Rafiki. CSI: Pride Rock sounds pretentious and overly drawn out, but the sequence is stunningly rendered and undeniably moving—an interpretation of the circle of life that, if nothing else, brings something new to the table.
How do the animals look?
Do you enjoy watching Planet Earth? Have you ever wondered what watching Planet Earth would be like if you removed David Attenborough’s narration and, instead, the animals just told you how they were feeling? That’s the nicest way to describe the new Lion King.
Disney and Favreau have been very tight-lipped about how exactly they created the impressive photorealistic animals in the film, and whether the new Lion King should be considered an animated film or live-action. Yes, the movie’s own director isn’t sure what to label it. But let’s cut to the chase: It looks like very impressive CGI. And from a technical standpoint, it really is a marvel: Computer-generated animals haven’t looked this realistic on screen since, well, Favreau directed The Jungle Book. But the achievement comes at the expense of the story and its emotional beats: You can’t capture a lot of feelings from a lion that just LOOKS LIKE A LION and can’t express itself in the way Mufasa, Scar, and Simba do in, say, Mufasa’s death scene. (You’re not allowed to call “spoiler” on that!)
If nothing else, The Lion King remake reaffirms how important the actual animation is in these movies. It’s cool that computers are now capable of nearly replicating real life on screen, but photorealism can’t make up for emotional authenticity and visual flair.
Wait, is Mufasa basically Ned Stark?
My lion dude is honor personified, who is way too nice to his a sketchy brother who: is literally named Scar; who challenged him for the throne long ago; and who it’s heavily implied in the new film has tried to court Mufasa’s wife, Sarabi, on several occasions, which is just messed up. The point is, Scar very clearly wants Mufasa dead, but out of some combination of brotherhood, loyalty, and duty, Mufasa lets him hang around. I’m not suggesting that Mufasa should execute his own brother, but come on: Just banish him from the Pride Lands! Such an executive decision would have a 99 percent approval rate!
I’m not trying to suggest that Mufasa deserved to die, but I don’t think a protagonist has been this blissfully unaware about the dangers surrounding him since Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark went to King’s Landing, casually informed Cersei Lannister that he knew her children were products of incest, and confided in a guy who was nicknamed Littlefinger who told Ned that he shouldn’t be trusted. No offense to Mufasa—and I understand that kids’ movies just need to get the plot moving—but with the benefit of hindsight, he’s definitely got the vibe of an ill-fated Stark.
How are the songs?
Shockingly, when you bring back Hans Zimmer—perhaps the only composer in the world who can sell out stadiums, and who did the original movie’s soundtrack—and add the vocal talents of Donald Glover, Elton John, and, oh right, BEYONCÉ, the music comes out good. “Spirit,” a Nala breakout, is one of two new songs provided for the remake. Given it’s a Beyoncé vehicle, “Spirit” feels like the remake’s most transparent attempt to snag an Oscar for Best Original Song.
It’ll probably work, and Beyoncé, who was just nominated for six Emmys, will probably be three-fourths of the way to an EGOT by February.
The songs and the vocals aren’t the problem, though; it’s how they’re conveyed on screen. Again, because the original Lion King was animated, it’s easy to show the joyous nature of animals swinging from vines and running through a gamut of physical expressions. But since the remake has a vested interest in making the animal characters look as animal-like as possible, the songs follow a familiar pattern on screen. Instead of vibrant and occasionally surreal flourishes, the scenes tend to … depict the characters taking a casual stroll while singing. I’m sure you’ve seen the comparison between the two versions of “Hakuna Matata;” unfortunately, it’s quite representative.
Comparison between the two animated versions of The Lion King. pic.twitter.com/E5dfgMASZJ— cartoonbrew.com (@cartoonbrew) July 11, 2019
Why is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” performed in broad daylight?
I don’t know what went wrong; it’s right there in the title! Also, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is among the horniest tracks in the Disney canon, and this time around, Donald Glover and Beyoncé, two objectively attractive people, did the vocals—and yet it feels positively neutered.
This shouldn’t have been difficult: dim the lighting to establish the capital-M Mood, and try to recapture 1994 Nala’s extremely DTF face.
Oh sorry, that’s right: Real lions don’t have sex eyes. And if it sounds inappropriate to include more horniness in a Disney movie made for children, then why did they feel OK making the hyenas look like they were DIPPED IN A VAT OF NUCLEAR WASTE?!
How are the voice actors?
With a bunch of A-list stars, the new Lion King spared no expense getting the glitziest voice cast imaginable. Whether they were all the right casting choices, however, is another proposition entirely. Let’s begin with the good: Reprising his role as Mufasa, 88-year-old James Earl Jones kills it again—he’s still got a booming voice, but it sounds a little wearier this time around, which actually adds a layer of gravitas to the character. As Timon and Pumbaa, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are scene-stealers who also receive more updated dialogue than any other characters. While it doesn’t seem like they’re playing Timon and Pumbaa as much as two CGI animals who happen to be Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, that’s a feature, not a bug. And Chiwetel Ejiofor understands that Scar is a messy bitch who lives for drama, and sounds appropriately Shakespearean with each of his line readings.
But now, we have to address the elephant in the room (no, not the photorealistic one): Glover and Beyoncé are just … fine. (Please, Beyhive, have mercy on my soul!) Neither performance matches the charisma both stars have as musicians and while portraying real-life characters on screen. Something didn’t translate from the recording booth to the big screen.
I don’t know what could have been done. I do know that using motion capture probably wouldn’t have helped. If you need a reminder of how horrifying human faces can look on CGI animals, watch the Netflix film Mowgli at your own peril.
Should we be concerned about Disney’s remake obsession?
Favreau’s Lion King isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, contemporary update of an old Disney movie. Live-action versions of Mulan and The Little Mermaid are among the many remakes currently in various stages of development, and given how much cash these films are stacking—Tim Burton’s Dumbo aside—there’s no reason to stop.
But the Mouse House’s spate of remakes is, at the same time, deeply dispiriting. Rebottling nostalgia can yield satisfying returns—that’s basically what turned Stranger Things into one of Netflix’s biggest hits—and there are moments in The Lion King that evoke warm feelings for that very reason. But for every live-action Little Mermaid or Mulan that Disney green-lights, we could be missing out on a new Moana or Zootopia: original conceits that convey their own endearing stories and moral lessons (that also happen to win Oscars and make bank!).
The Lion King does have a crucial disadvantage that the other live-action remakes don’t, though: the lack of a literal human presence. The Jungle Book was also littered with photorealistic animals, but Mowgli was there to ground the whole thing—and while Will Smith looked like one of the blue aliens from Avatar after hitting up the Bowflex in Aladdin, the rest of the cast (including the CGI characters) were comparatively normal-looking. It’s much easier to traverse the uncanny valley when that isn’t all there is to see.
Mulan and The Little Mermaid will, thankfully, star plenty of actual humans capable of displaying actual human emotions. Whether or not that’ll make the movies feel less like parts of an inescapable machine of capitalism, well—maybe it’s just healthier to say “Hakuna Matata” and keep it moving.