I’m not one who clings to nostalgia about Disney’s 1994 animated original “The Lion King,” but the latest in the studio’s line of visual modernizations of a beloved cartoon classic feels like little more than a show-off of technical prowess rather than a solid example of good storytelling. If there ever was a movie that had as little reason to exist as this revamped mess, I can’t think of it. It feels extra pointless to churn out yet another remake instead of actually being creative and running with an original idea. Sadly, we can expect more of this secondhand plundering of movies from the vault until audiences finally scream “enough!” and vote with their wallets.
It’s fair to call the visual effects stunning, as they are definitely of the game changing sort. The photo-real animals are an achievement in cinematic technology, as long as you don’t examine them too closely. At first, it feels like you’re watching a DisneyNature film and you may have to pinch yourself as a reminder that none of it is real. But then those jerky, inauthentic animal movements combine with a dull, brown landscape and it’s clear that everything is as fake as fake can be. It’s something to see now, but it’s tech that will age poorly in the years to come.
The script follows the 1994 film with a few rewrites, and they aren’t for the better. The dialogue is clunky, and the outdated story about rightful male heirs, arranged marriage, and a society where females are ruled by men (which isn’t even true in lion prides in the wild) feels archaic. Do we really want or need more of this type of story?
It doesn’t help matters that the voice talent mostly amateurish, and it actually becomes distracting. The supporting cast voice performances (John Oliver as Zazu, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, and Eric André as Azizi) are much better than the leads (Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala), which are borderline atrocious. The saving grace here is the dynamic duo of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), fan favorites that are well cast because they had to be. Of course, the cheap fart jokes are added to keep the kids engaged, but the snail’s pace of the film will likely have lost their attention spans before the first signs of Pumbaa breaking wind. This is another one of those movies that is nothing but visual filler for the first half, but then the third act is hurried with a bombardment of plot and action.
It’s not just the gradual pacing that isn’t well-suited for kiddos. Parents, I’m begging you to keep your youngest ones at home. This movie is appropriately rated PG for violence and scenes of animals in extreme peril. This is a very dark story and movie with very adult themes. This movie will definitely be scary for most young children and could prove absolutely terrifying to some, especially those with even mild levels of separation anxiety.
Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a frightening villain, and the most disturbing scenes from the animated original are played out here with hyper-realistic visuals. Watching murderous brutality when it happens to cartoon characters is a lot different than watching sobering violence happening to animals that look and feel just like the real thing. (Think of playing a shooting game on an Atari back in 1980 compared with Red Dead Redemption from today). No, this film isn’t bloody, but the intensity could sucker punch adults too.
There’s one area where the movie excels, and that’s with its music. The original classics like “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” are surprisingly improved upon with minor updates to make them fresh and modern, and Hans Zimmer‘s original score is breathtaking. An added bonus: House of Mouse superfans will be pleased at the little nods to Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Orlando, Florida (especially those familiar with the Kilamanjaro Safari attraction).