The Circle of Life is coming full circle, and depending on your tolerance of creativity vs. comfort, you belong to one of two camps: bring on more remakes or make them stop.
So far, Disney’s reboot formula has largely worked, ranging from the spectacular “Jungle Book” to the disappointing “Dumbo” with “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Christopher Robin” and “Aladdin” in between. Fans understandably have high hopes for “The Lion King,” as for many of us, the 1994 animation remains Disney’s gold standard.
Now, the answer arrives with “The Lion King” (2019), a blockbuster that is visually mind-blowing in its photorealistic nature, yet feels oddly soulless compared to the original. Thankfully, there’s plenty of nostalgia to go around, a surefire win for the weekend, perhaps even the king of the summer box office, even if it falls short of the home run that Disney hoped for.
Like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the story follows lion cub Simba, who is in line to inherit the throne of his father Mufassa. When his jealous uncle Scar orchestrates Mufassa’s death, Simba flees into the wilderness leaving his uncle to rule in desolation. After meeting a pair of drifters, Timon and Pumbaa, learning from sage baboon Rafiki, and reconnecting with childhood sweetheart Nala, Simba must return home to take his rightful place as king.
The voice cast boasts an A-list roster. James Earl Jones returns as the iconic Mufassa alongside Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, lending a majestic quality to Simba’s wise parents. Child star JD McCrary may not be as recognizable as Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but his Young Simba delivers a bouncy “I Just Cant Wait to Be King,” trading verbal jabs with Shahadi Wright Joseph as Young Nala and John Oliver as the strict chaperon dodo Zazu.
Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) tries to make Scar his own, just like Idris Elba’s Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book,” but he has impossibly big paws to fill in a role so synonymous with the deliciously sinister Jeremy Irons. Ejiofor’s villainous anthem “Be Prepared” disappoints as a spoken-word version rather than an epic musical number with chilling fascist imagery. You’ll also miss Whoopi Goldberg as one of the cackling hyenas.
Act Two brings even more star power. Billy Eichner is spot-on as the hyper Timon, while Seth Rogen was born to play the farting Pumbaa. Most importantly, Donald Glover and Beyoncé are an upgrade over Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly as Adult Simba and Nala. Not only is it more responsible to cast African Americans in African roles, both are phenomenal musicians who combine for a cool duet on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” though Elton John and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning rendition remains king (and vagabond).
Right from the “Circle of Life” opening, your jaw will drop at the photorealistic graphics, looking as lifelike as a “Planet Earth” nature doc. This has sparked debate over whether to call it a “live-action” remake when it is all computer-generated. Disney claims it’s actually a state-of-the-art blend of CGI and motion-capture technology, the kind that Andy Serkis perfected in the “Planet of the Apes” prequels (2011-2017), but I doubt James Earl Jones was down crawling on all fours. I have a feeling it’s more CGI than Disney is letting on.
While the characters look realistic, we yearn for their personalities to be more, well, animated. Gone is the color palette that gave Mufassa a red mane over golden fur and Scar a black mane over a dark-orange coat. Here, the hero and villain look too similar. We can appreciate the mangy fur details, but the old cell animation helped us to differentiate.
Just as it’s tricky to call it a live-action remake, it’s also not entirely accurate to call it a shot-for-shot remake. Director Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book”) recreates many famous shots, including the triple dissolve to show passage of time during “Hakuna Matata” and the camera pulling away as Simba watches Mufassa plummet to his death. Sadly, Favreau axed my favorite shot: the “Vertigo” rush as Simba watches the wildebeest enter the gorge.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”) has fun with “Lion King” lore, spoofing elements of fandom. In “Hakuna Matata,” the script replaces the quip, “Pumbaa, not in front of the kids,” with a funny alternative that’s a real gas. It also scraps Timon and Pumbaa’s hula-drag distraction dance (“Are you achin’ for some bacon?”) with a more familiar song plucked from the Disney archives. The switcheroo is truly a thing of beauty.
Beyond line replacements, the most welcome upgrade is a deeper dive into themes of morality. While Mufassa preaches a “do unto others” sermon on the “Circle of Life,” Timon and Pumbaa follow a selfish “straight line” philosophy. There’s a key scene debating whether our actions affect others or whether we can do whatever we want without consequences. Favreau then cuts to a clever sequence of animal fur blowing across the grasslands, moving from creature to creature, thus proving the interconnectedness of life.
It’s fleeting proof that creativity still rules, but sadly the film is mostly a paint-by-numbers project. Even faithful recreations can feel stale; three line readings in particular. First, Mufassa jokes to Sarabi, “Before sunrise, he’s your son,” but the line falls flat despite Jones voicing it. Second, Ejiofor’s murderous line, “Long live the king,” lacks the danger of Irons. Finally, Beyonce’s “Simba, is that really you?” lacks the level of surprise that a long-lost friend would feel upon re-encountering an old flame who she believed to be dead.
It all builds to the big moment of Simba climbing Pride Rock to Hans Zimmer’s epic score, but just before he reaches the edge, Simba jumps the gun, roaring too early before the music crescendos. It’s an unforced error that makes us shrug when we should have goose bumps, sending us out of the movie theater saying, “Welp, ‘The Jungle Book’ was better.'”
Alas, even if it isn’t the best Disney remake, our fond comparisons to the original prove that the 1994 film is Disney’s all-time best production. Not only did it win the Golden Globe for Best Picture, its Afro-Shakespearean take inspired “Black Panther” (2018) and its soundtrack both climbed the radio charts and inspired Disney’s first Broadway musical.
Skeptics of the Disney machine may claim it’s a rip off of the Japanese TV series “Kimba the White Lion,” but the story differences are too drastic. Likewise, film buffs may cite the historic nature of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but the heroine’s shaky voice is nails-on-the-chalkboard compared to Sir Elton, while her hope of a savior prince is an outdated “male gaze” artifact. However you slice it, “The Lion King” (1994) reigns supreme.
As for the quasi-live-action remake, the result feels more like a nostalgic growl than a game-changing roar. The 1994 film made history; the 2019 remake will be a footnote. Take the family, but make sure you also show them the true masterpiece later this weekend.