The affection people have for the new The Lion King will be the direct result of their love for the 1994 original. Don’t be fooled! This computer-generated update is a stale remake that rarely dazzles. However, it’s just satisfying enough to be worth seeing because the story feels timeless and it still strikes the right emotional cords.
The beloved ’94 film grossed $422 million at the domestic box office, and the 1997 Broadway adaptation is the highest-grossing show in Broadway history, with $1.5 billion and counting.
If by chance you live under a rock, don’t like Disney and/or have heretofore never cared, the story is roughly this: The Lion King is about a lion cub named Simba (JD McCrary as a child, Donald Glover as an adult) who just can’t wait to be king. His father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) and father’s assistant, Zazu (John Oliver), are trying to raise him right. Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn’t as helpful; Scar orchestrates a scenario in which Mufasa must save Simba from a stampede. Mufasa dies, and Simba is banished from the kingdom.
Simba finds a new home with friends – a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner), and a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Many of the names are taken from the Swahili language, spoken by tens of millions of people in East Africa, where the animals featured in the film come from: “Simba” means “lion,” “Rafiki” means “friend,” “Mufasa” means “king,” and yes, “Hakuna Matata” does indeed mean “no worries.”
Together the friendly trio lives a carefree life with no worries until Simba’s childhood lion friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, Beyoncé as an adult) happens upon them, at which point she tells Simba that Scar is destroying his home and he must return to claim his rightful place as king.
Although the songs are familiar and welcome, most of them underwhelm in this remake. What’s more, they feel restrained, as if director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) was so concerned with paying homage to the original that he forgot to inject the sequences with a freshness and creativity of their own. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” holds up well, but “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” don’t. Moreover, with few exceptions the voice cast is unimpressive: Eichner and Rogen work well together as Timon and Pumbaa, and Oliver is amusing as Zazu, but Jones’ voice isn’t as clear and powerful as it once was, and Ejiofor lacks the menace that makes Scar so fearful.
The saddest part about this average adaptation is that Disney movies once set the standard for cinematic innovation. Walt Disney himself led the way in creating Steamboat Willie (1928, the first animated film with sound and the world’s introduction to Mickey and Minnie Mouse), andSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, the first feature-length animated film). The studio was bold and imaginative, daring to push the limits of what cinema could be. Oh, how the mighty have changed.
(Not to forget – the 1994 animated original, which remains legendary, was also made by Disney of another era that leaned into greatness.)
The new The Lion King certainly looks fabulous, but it plays safe and meek, just as most of the other Disney “live-action” adaptations (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast) have been. The apparent intention is for this The Lion King to mean to youngsters today what the original meant to youngsters 25 years ago. The world is different, though, and while kids today may like this film, there’s no way they’ll like it as much as today’s parents liked the original.
The circle of life is a theme of both the original and the remake, but it’s a shame that doesn’t really apply when it comes to the film itself, that feels like a flat effort, lacking heart, at modernizing the format for today’s audiences.
THE LION KING ( 2 ½ ) Directed by Jon Favreau • Starring Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor • Rated PG • 118 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas