It’s nigh on impossible to judge Disney’s new Lion King, a film as stupendously impressive as it is colossally lazy. The question of whether it is enjoyable in its own right or simply from the benefit of its predecessor’s memory may well never find resolution in the viewing. While there’s no denying the technical skill underlying the production – which unites computer generated imagery with virtual reality technology so as to take breaths as they have not been taken since Avatar – a derivative script by Jeff Nathanson steals scene after scene from the original, with little room for fresh perspective. The result is less emotionally engaged than before and only just about as rousing.
The déjà vu James Earl Jones must have experienced in re-recording his work of 1994 for a new take must have been severely disquieting. Over two decades have past since the debut of Disney’s thirty-second animated classic and yet one wonders how long Jones, the sole returnee, could have gotten away with using his earlier script before director Jon Favreau would have noticed? Certainly through the opening, a shot for shot remake, and likely through past his iconic ‘everything the light touches’ spiel to young Simba (JD McCrary) some twenty minutes in.
What an odd thing this is. Whereas the likes of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin at least have laid claim to individuality as live action adaptations, this reborn Lion King remains animated in its entirety, albeit photo-realistically. Not that the join is clear. Far from it. So brilliantly realised is Jones’ individually haired, twitchy eared Mufasa that one might even momentarily wonder whether lions really can talk. Narnia’s Aslan now pales in comparison – and he didn’t even sing!
It’s not just the animals that dazzle here, of course. Favreau’s whole tableaux shimmers with wholesome depth and gifts suitable dramatic heft to the original Shakespearean plot. The transition of Pride Rock from lush utopia to baron dust hole is as metaphorically effective as they come, while the elephant graveyard in which Simba first encounters the story’s demonic hyenas haunts beyond anything in the original. Not that said beasts’ comedy value survives the update so well. This is a darker take on the tale, for better and worse. Whereas Scar – voiced with the languid drawl of treachery by Chiwetel Ejiofor – benefits from a scabbier exterior and more viscous take on the song ‘Be Prepared’, it’s hard not to miss the abstract vibrancy that once brought ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ to bouncy life.
Among the rest of the cast, Donald Glover and Beyoncé only vaguely register as the matured Simba and Nala, whilst Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan raise the bar, with semi-improvised glee, as jungle double act Timon and Pumba. John Oliver has fun in Rowan Atkinson’s old role of Zazu, hornbill and majordomo of Pride Rock, and Alfre Woodard is pleasingly regal as Sarabi, the lion queen. Admirable that Disney’s attempt to diversify the new cast is in essence, however, the ultimate, A-list choices made remain tokenistic and still questionable. Only two in the ensemble are neither American nor British, with South African actor John Kani positioned to continue the Western trope of ‘magical negro’ as shaman mandrill Rafiki. When Disney’s new Mulan arrives next year, expect more scrutiny.
On reflection, it is not the recall of the original Lion King that stings here but the more recent memory of Favreau’s vastly superior take on The Jungle Book. Round two in his Disney remake catalogue might secure the director’s peerlessness in the realisation of digital vistas – sorry Serkis – but is sorely lacking in imaginative intent. Too little of Favreau’s Lion King revitalises that which was done so well before and too much merely rehashes it. Scenes are plumped rather than rewritten, with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score merely tweaked and elongated to follow suit. The film is good but effectively, distractingly pointless.