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Billy Eichner Saves ‘The Lion King’

Along with Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Eichner injects the film with a much-needed sense of liveliness and comes away as the best part of the 2019 remake

Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration

If you’ve seen the 1994 animated classic The Lion King, you’ve basically seen the 2019 remake. The original and its modern retooling have identical plot lines and emotional beats, nearly all the same songs, and many of the same shots. Jon Favreau’s reimagining will make a new generation of kids laugh, cry, and hopefully look up the vibrant cartoon source material, but there’s not much to recommend it as a stand-alone film for adults unaccompanied by children, unless the child-free adults in question happen to be passionate fans of photorealistic animation (in which case, they are in major luck). That said—have you seen some of the dramatic-ass reviews for this film? “Futile.” “Spiritless.” “State-of-the-art pablum.” And my personal favorite: “The creatively bankrupt work of a studio eating itself alive. It doesn’t feel like a remake so much as a photorealistic snuff film.” Whew. OK.

The new Lion King is, yes, an artistically pointless cash grab engineered by a megacorporation to regurgitate nostalgia to generate maximum profit. But hakuna matata! The country is going through a heat wave, parents need somewhere air-conditioned to take their kids, and the songs are still good. And most notably, Billy Eichner’s performance as the sassy meerkat Timon is legitimately great. If nothing else justifies The Lion King remake, establishing Eichner as a mainstream actor will.

Eichner rose to fame as an iconoclastic comedian with Billy on the Street, his frenetic, confrontational, deeply weird interview game show that mostly consists of ambushing unsuspecting people on the unfriendly streets of New York City.

Eichner was also brilliant on Hulu’s Difficult People, which ran for three acerbic, underappreciated seasons and that happened to feature an episode where Eichner’s character accosts Nathan Lane, a.k.a. the original Timon. But so far Eichner is most widely recognized for his small supporting role in Parks and Recreation—though, after a $185 million opening weekend for The Lion King, that will change.

All of the voice acting in the remake is competent, but Eichner managed a tough feat in a nearly shot-by-shot update of a beloved classic—he made Timon feel both true to the original and original in his own right. Nathan Lane also played Timon as a bundle of quips, but Eichner’s version is more melancholy, a wee hedonist with a tender heart and killer singing voice. In real-life performances, Eichner uses his lanky physicality to accentuate his comedy, lurching toward surprised interview subjects on the Manhattan sidewalks of Billy on the Street. In The Lion King, his booming voice lends tiny Timon an extra dose of bluster; so much confident cynicism in such a small package. This version of The Lion King has partially justified its existence by hiring bona fide musical superstars in its lead roles: Adult Simba is played by Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, while adult Nala is played by friggin’ Beyoncé. And yet the most impressive musical performance in the film comes from Eichner, who belts the lyrics during “Hakuna Matata” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with clarity and gusto. Along with Seth Rogen’s farty, gentle warthog Pumbaa, Eichner’s Timon gives the movie its pulse.

This sense of freshness is a direct result of Eichner’s and Rogen’s comedy backgrounds. “A really remarkable part of the Timon-and-Pumbaa dialogue came out of improv,” Eichner told Vulture. The new jokes tend toward the sardonic; the meerkat tells Simba that life isn’t a circle but a “meaningless line of indifference,” and reluctantly comforts his young charge by asking him how he is “in as few words as possible.” The remake takes a few different stabs at expanding the perspectives of its secondary characters, giving Nala a few additional lines about fighting back against Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who likewise gets a teeny-tiny bit more backstory about his hatred of Mufasa. None of the changes do much to enrich the film, though, whereas the extra time with Timon and Pumbaa actually feels like a chance for the characters to evolve from nihilists to, uh, interspecies monarchists.

If Disney is going to keep chugging along with this whole “remake everything” gambit, it would be wise to keep Eichner in rotation. The Hunchback of Notre Dame? He’d be a fun gargoyle to Jeremy Renner’s Quasimodo. Hercules? He’s a shoo-in to replace James Woods as the wisecracking villain-god Hades. Oliver & Company? Let’s be real, it’s never getting remade, but if it does, I sincerely doubt that Billy Joel will be willing to reprise his underheralded 1988 performance as the naughty stray dog Dodger—but Eichner would kill it. My problem-free philosophy is to embrace the meaningless line of indifferent Disney remakes, as long as Eichner shows up.