The Lion King.
Disney has a hit or miss track record with these remakes. Luckily, the highlight for me so far as been The Jungle Book, which is directed by Jon Favreau (who also directs The Lion King). So if The Jungle Book was a test for how to create realistic talking and singing animals, that should mean The Lion King is a surefire thing right? Well, we’ll see.
As “Circle of Life” plays, we see the African plains unfold, introducing us to the king Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and his queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). Their newborn son Simba (JD McCrary) is the next in line for the throne, which Mufasa tries to prepare him for throughout our first act. You know who’s not happy about this new addition to the family? Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who recruits a pack of hyenas to help him take the throne. If you’ve seen the animated The Lion King, what happens next should not be surprising to you.
We cut to Simba all grown up (and voiced by Donald Glover), who is reunited with his childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter). Also voicing characters, we’ve got Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, John Oliver as Zazu the bird, and John Kani as the monkey Rafiki.
The star of the show here is how absolutely breathtaking this film looks. If I didn’t know any better, it appears like actual live animals have been trained to sing and dance, it looks that good. The Jungle Book really paved the way for this and The Lion King delivers in very much the same way. BUT. These are two very different movies. In The Jungle Book film, they cut a lot of the music numbers, whereas The Lion King, they fully embrace them. So how does a photorealistic lion cub emote and dance and sing in the same way as its animated counterpart? It can’t and that poses some problems, which I’ll get to in the next section.
In terms of our immense voice talent, the (surprise) highlights are Timon and Pumbaa, voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. You know Rogen but if you don’t know Billy Eichner, welcome aboard and check out his hilarious Billy on the Street YouTube channel. These two bring the movie to life, after a somewhat slow first half. Once they arrive, the second half of the film is drastically more electric and more interesting.
The recent Aladdin divided fans because that film made some significant changes to the original, including a few new songs, new characters, and more. Here, if you want the exact same story as the animated film, you’re in luck. It’s nearly shot for shot, even line for line, the same. My audience even quoted the movie as it was happening because the dialogue was lifted right from the animated film. I wouldn’t say this a pro, but a lot of you, this may be what you want.
What doesn’t work?
Like I said, this movie does nothing new. There’s a new Beyonce song that plays over a travel montage and the song “Be Prepared” was drastically changed, but most of the movie is absolutely the same. So is this movie necessary? I’d argue no.
I also mentioned that these animals are incredibly lifelike. But that becomes a problem here, as it’s impossible to mimic the sort of range and emotion that we need. When major tragedy occurs (you know the one), it’s hard to get any sort of emotion from a lifelike cub face. It’s hard to believe that John Oliver’s voice is coming from a bird that only clack its beak together, appearing more like a dub over an Animal Planet special, than a real Hollywood film. It takes away the impact and kind of distances you from these characters, as you’re always cognizant of this voice dissonance.
And while Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner stole the show, almost every other voice was somewhat forgettable to me. Unfortunately the weakest link was probably Donald Glover, who did a decent job with the songs but faltered on his normal dialogue, undercutting the massive climax.
They mastered the art of making photo-realistic animals with The Jungle Book, but I think they pushed it too far here, expecting these lifelike animals to sing and dance convincingly. It doesn’t work and an especially slow first half of the film suffers from this inability to really connect with them. The movie comes to life in the second half, with the killer duo of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, who are this movie’s saving grace and probably the biggest reason to see it.