There was once a time that Disney was widely regarded as a paragon of ingenuity and creativity. Chief among the surest things in Hollywood were the latest Disney film’s fantastic animation, super-memorable characters, and brilliant story. And starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, the end-of-the-century Disney renaissance was chock-full of many, many iconic moments (including many in the original Lion King).
So what the heck has happened in the past ten years? Starting with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, we’ve been subjected to at least seven (depending on how you count them) live-action remakes of Disney animated classics—some decent, some abysmal. This remake of The Lion King can be stuffed squarely in the middle. While it does have its moments, particularly with the stunning (though entirely computer-generated) cinematography and the vocal performances of some (but not all) of the cast, overall there’s no question it’s a misfire.
In the plus column, it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed 2016’s magical The Jungle Book remake—by far the best of the Disney re-do bunch. His team’s ability to take pixels and turn them into something utterly believable, whether it’s the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro or the smallest hair on Simba’s snout, is legitimately incredible.
This extreme realism is also the movie’s biggest detriment, however. Since it seems like we’re gazing at real animals, The Lion King almost ends up playing like some kind of bizarre David Attenborough-narrated documentary. Even worse is the added intensity and darkness that results. Not only will it be unwelcome among the younger set, at least a half-dozen kids at my screening went running for the lobby immediately after the film’s two horror-movie quality jump scares. (And that doesn’t count the tears that erupted at Mufasa’s death.) This is not a kid-friendly, fun way to spend a weekend afternoon by any stretch.
Another issue comes with the fact that this Lion King follows the original 1994 film to a T. The vast majority in fact, plays like an almost shot-for-shot regurgitation. It’s admirable, sure, in terms of the talent of the animators, but at it also begins to reek of unoriginality after only 15 minutes.
An hour into the film, we finally get a much-needed zap from a defibrillator with the arrival of Timon and Pumbaa. Voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen respectively—both of whom knock it way, way out of the park—the pair are able to offset the stale characters that led up to that point with a combo of well-written humor and sparkling improv.
As for the rest of the cast, Chiwetel Ejiofor drew the short straw and earned the unenviable task of voicing Scar. And though (to be fair) he does just fine in his own right, he barely holds a candle to the iconic Jeremy Irons, who originated the role. As Mufasa, James Earl Jones is the only actor to return, and he does his usual stellar work, but the same can’t be said for Donald Glover as Simba, John Oliver as Zazu, and Beyoncé as Nala. Their un-enthusiastic performances make it seem they were each hired for their name recognition and not much else. Beyoncé, however, does lend her amazing voice to two songs for the soundtrack, including “Sprit”, which she co-wrote specifically for the movie.
There are obviously creative and interesting ways to retell the story of The Lion King(look no further than Broadway), but this uninspired live-action re-do is not it. Save yourself the time and just pull out your ol’ collectors-edition VHS tape of the original instead. It’ll allow you to remember not only a better a movie but also a better time, when Disney was a creative force to be reckoned with and not just another studio content to throw the concept of originality out with the daily trash.