Cannibalism has come to the Circle of Life—perhaps not literally, although there’s a good deal of chomping in Jon Favreau’s remake of “The Lion King,” and one can’t always be certain of who or what’s being devoured.
But on a less literal level, the movie is the latest in Disney’s project to cannibalize its own animated classics by retooling them, usually in quasi-live-action form (as with the recent “Aladdin”). That’s not possible in this case, of course, but moving another step beyond the already impressive realism that Favreau managed in his 2016 version of “The Jungle Book,” it often comes as close to natural verisimilitude as one might want. Except, of course, when the animals move their mouths to speak or sing, you might be fooled into thinking you were watching the sort of true-life adventure the company used to make back in the fifties. (The visual effects supervisors were Mark Livolsi and Adam Gerstel, the production designer James Chinlund, and the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.)
The difficulty with that is that while a good deal of it is relatively happy and upbeat, there’s a good deal of violence in this story, and the more visually realistic it becomes, the more gruesome and unpleasant it is to watch, particularly for smaller children. It makes one dread what the result might be when such an approach is applied to the mother’s death in the seemingly inevitable new “Bambi.”
Apart from that concern, this new “King” isn’t—as some expected—simply a shot-by-shot remake of the much-loved 1994 original; it runs a half-hour longer, and the songbook is altered, in some cases expanded (there’s a new song by Beyoncé, for instance). But whatever the story has gained in terms of technical prowess, it has lost in charm and emotional impact.
The essence of the plot, of course, remains the same. Evil Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills his royal brother Mufasa (again voiced magisterially by James Earl Jones) and, persuading his young nephew Simba (JD McCrary) that he was responsible for the death, convinces the cub to go into exile. He is befriended by the happy-go-lucky duo of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), who teach him not to take things too seriously—and to curtail his carnivorous tendencies.
It’s in this idyllic environment that he grows into young lionhood (complete with a voice change to Donald Glover), until his childhood friend Nala (previously Shahadi Wright Joseph, now Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) shows up to persuade him to return to his land and reclaim the crown from Scar and his band of ravenous hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre). With the help of Nala, Pumbaa and Timon, as well as his mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), Mufasa’s ever-loyal aide the hornbill Zazu (John Oliver), and the land’s wise shaman, the mandrill Rafiki (John Kani), he succeeds. Peace and love return to the realm.
It would take a side-by-side comparison of the 1994 film and this one to measure exactly where the extra half-hour’s footage occurs (a good chunk probably is to be found in the endless closing credits), but even when scenes are effectively duplicated, they aren’t nearly as effective in this version. Perhaps that’s simply because though there are no human characters in either film (as there were in “The Jungle Book,” played by flesh-and-blood people), there was a human touch to the traditional animation of the earlier picture, while, as beautifully rendered as it is, there’s inevitably a soulless, machine-generated feel to the images here—a quality that’s undermined the Disney reworkings of their other animated films as well. Of course, it hasn’t stopped people from flocking to them, and they will undoubtedly fill the seats for this one as well.
And they will be rewarded not only by all those impressive though chilly visuals, but by solid voiceover work. Not all the newcomers match their predecessors, of course (as smoothly as he delivers his dialogue, for example, Ejiofor’s tones aren’t as unforgettable as Jeremy Irons’ were, and for all their exuberance Rogen and Eichner don’t efface memories of Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane), but most provide reasonable facsimiles of the originals, and a few actually improve on them.
Any remake of “The Lion King” would be unnecessary, of course, but while this one can be admired as a marvel of computer animation, it lacks the resonance of the original. As with its predecessors in this Disney series, one suspects that when in future years people reach for a Blu-ray of the title from their shelves, it will be of the earlier movie, not Favreau’s impeccably rendered but rather heartless one.