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The ‘Lion King’ Remake Exists. But Why?

The new live-action version isn’t as bad as the naysayers would lead you to believe. It is, however, a weird watch.

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

It looks weird. Let’s just say it: It looks weird. Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of Disney’s god-tier 1994 animated classic The Lion King, a spirited plunge into the uncanny valley of corporate synergy with itself, is a technological marvel and very much not a disaster, and yet: weird.

It is weird to watch a young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary), now theoretically a real-life lion cub, belt out “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” with, compared to the animated version, a curiously inanimate stone-faced sort of approach, far more low-energy Keanu Reeves than, say, high-energy Jim Carrey. McCrary is a fine voice actor; the lion is a lousy lion actor.

It is weird that they crammed a mid-energy new Beyoncé song, the wail-a-thon “Spirit,” into the midst of a brief but beloved song cycle that already had the precisely ideal amount of wailing.

It is weird that Favreau otherwise clings tightly to the 88-minute ’94 original—in terms of the emotional beats, the specific scenes, and even many of the individual shots—and yet managed to add a solid half-hour to the runtime. (The new stuff is almost all hyenas, and Beyoncé.)

It is weird to listen as Donald Glover (as adult Simba) and Beyoncé (as adult Nala, Simba’s friend-slash-ladyfriend, who as aforementioned suddenly has way more lines) duet on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and not particularly feel it.

It is weird, in short, to not hate this new Lion King, but to certainly also not love it, and instead feel a serene sort of indifference. To resign yourself to Disney’s master plan to pull this live-action-remake business with every bygone hit you know and legitimately love. To take grim solace in the fact that this particular remake is not as corny as 2017’s Beauty and the Beast nor as bone-chillingly awkward as May’s Aladdin. To concede that Disney’s money-grubbing empire indeed encompasses everything that the light touches, even those parts the light already quite lucratively touched. May we all live long enough to see our favorite kids movies transformed—not ruined, exactly, but certainly not improved—into spirited and yet bloodless technological marvels.

“Let me simplify this for you,” says Timon the meerkat, voiced by a suddenly indispensable Billy Eichner. “Life is meaningless.” There are no losers in this remake, per se. But Eichner is the only winner.

It turns out that the primary sources of joy and wonder in the 1994 Lion King, directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, are not so much the big things—the Elton John songs, the Elton John–sized emotions—as the little things. The painterly landscapes, low-key but high-return, of trees and sunrises and storms and paw prints and whatnot. (Favreau emulates plenty of these, and yet his Pride Rock looks neither as majestic during the Good Times nor as elegantly dessicated during the Bad Times.) The Jaws-style zoom onto Simba’s shocked face as his evil uncle Scar triggers the wildebeest stampede that will claim the life of Scar’s brother and Simba’s father, Mufasa. (That’s not repeated here, but the shot of Scar—now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor—looming over a doomed Mufasa—voiced, as in the original, by the ever-mighty James Earl Jones—is a bit more chilling.) The fact that the first words spoken in the original are Scar’s lament, “Life’s not fair, is it?” (Now changed to “Life’s not fair, is it, my little friend?” which like almost everything here is not worse, or better, so much as it’s just more.)

In the theater, I found myself yearning for the shots to be exact, and often they more or less were: When a mourning Simba runs away and passes out in a pitless desert, you get the shadows of the vultures crossing over him, and then the vultures themselves framed by the pitiless sun. This inspired in me not so much happiness as passive contentment, not so much wonder as mere recognition. The songs are all just slightly worse—thanks to Glover and Beyoncé, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” now has, like, 300 percent more melisma, to no particular effect—except for Scar’s here’s-my-evil plan jam “Be Prepared,” which now sounds like bargain-basement Leonard Cohen and is much, much worse.

In terms of scene additions, you get Beyoncé-as-Nala delivering empty new bromides (“We have to do something! We have to fight!”) and Scar at least attempting to explain why he bothered killing his brother and taking his throne in the first place if he didn’t have much of a plan for actually ruling afterward besides lying around and glowering some more. (It appears he mostly wanted to have Disney Lion Sex with his brother’s wife, who declines.) The villainous hyenas, as aforementioned, get a lot more screen time to seethe and slink about and whatnot, but they’re not allowed to be funny anymore, and thus I must report that Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, and Florence Kasumba are no Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings.

This leaves our friends Timon and Pumbaa, who are, blessedly—and singularly, as the remake goes—wonderful. Pumbaa the flatulent warthog is played by Seth Rogen, and fine, he wins, too, if only because he gets to sing the line, “I got downhearted / Every time that I farted.”

You may recall that The Lion King is the story of a cocky lion cub who runs away from his problems and basically takes an irresponsible gap year as his family and friends all nearly starve to death: “Hakuna Matata,” as charming and cynical-remake-bulletproof a little ditty as it might be, functionally boils down to “fuck it.” (Donald Glover feebly attempting to sell Beyoncé on the “Hakuna Matata” mind-set is a funny little joke.) But Simba’s moral low point is everyone else’s high point, in that we get to hear Eichner sink his meerkat teeth into lines like “Lady, you’ve got your lions crossed” (a callback to ’94) or “I like what you’ve done with the place … a bit heavy on the carcasses.” (A fine new addition.)

The comic relief is, indeed, the only real relief here. John Oliver is very much in his element as the frazzled red-billed hornbill Zazu, though when he blurts out something like, “The Pride Lands are in imminent danger!” you might reflexively assume he’s talking about the Supreme Court or something. It is indeed amusing that Rafiki the wise mandrill (John Kani) now discovers that Simba is still alive because of a piece of fur that now first passes through, uh, the digestive system of a giraffe. (The crowd at my theater thought that part was very funny.) But watching Rafiki kick hyena ass was much more satisfying when Rafiki was a cartoon. I have no real explanation for this preference. But Disney has no real explanation for trying to improve on the cartoon in the first place, besides the obvious one.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that I don’t enjoy watching theoretically live-action lions beat the stuffing out of one other. This is indeed the Lion King you remember, redone in a discomfiting but fundamentally inoffensive nature-documentary style you can tolerate. If it’s pure revulsion and schadenfreude you want, stick with the Cats trailer. Pointless, in this context, does not mean terrible, or for that matter even bad. But the remake’s ceiling is Good Enough. Favreau hits that ceiling often enough, sure. But even in those moments, don’t expect to be thrilled—only soothed. It is, indeed, a problem-free philosophy. But it’s a delight-free philosophy, too.