Like so many in my age group, I can trace back my earliest sexual awakening to a cartoon lion voiced by Matthew Broderick. Watching Simba emerge from the watering hole at the end of “Hakuna Matata,” shaking out his mane, and smoothing it back in one big swoosh was a formative moment. The youth watching the new, live action version of Disney’s The Lion King won’t get to experience it, though, because that scene, and its counterpart — adult Nala staring up at Simba through heavy-lidded lashes after a tussle down the mountain — aren’t in the otherwise shot-for-shot remake. And I get it — sexy lions do not translate into reality. But that same spark of whimsy, that strange campiness, is what’s missing from what is otherwise a stunning visual feast.
I won’t go into the particulars of the plot too much, because it’s pretty much identical to the original, give or take one or two lines of dialogue. The film opens with the sun rising over the savannah — it’s a new day, to celebrate the birth of a new era. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his voicework from the original) and Queen Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard) have given birth to a new prince, heir to Pride Rock, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a youngster and Donald Glover as an adult). But something lurks in the shadows: Scar (Chiwetel Eljiofor), Mufasa’s scorned younger brother who resents the cub who has usurped his claim to the throne. Yada, yada, yada — Scar plots to kill his brother with the help of hyenas and a frightened pack of wildebeests, Simba runs away after Scar tells him his beloved father’s death was all his fault, and runs straight into the loving, dilettante arms of Timon (Billy Eichner) and a very scary-looking Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Eventually, his childhood friend-turned-love interest Nala (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, and Beyoncé Knowles Carter as an adult) comes to whip him into shape. He needs to take his rightful place as king of Pride Rock.
Directed by Jon Favreau, the film is certainly beautiful. Far from resenting the shot-for-shot camerawork during “Circle of Life,” it made me appreciate anew just how technically complex the original animation was for it to seamlessly transfer over. The photo-realism of Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is almost jarring in its detail. I didn’t even hate the whole minute we spent with a dung beetle pushing a giraffe turd around the desert! But the problem with making a movie about talking animals seem so real is that eventually, you’re left feeling like it’s a two-hour version of Planet Earth with songs. But on the flip side, there is no blood, sticking the whole thing in the strange limbo between animation and PG-rated live action where no one ever really gets hurt, even when they die trampled by wildebeests.
Some of the new details mesh well with the old: Zazu, the hornbill voiced by John Oliver, has been retooled to suit the comedian’s personality in a way that’s particularly appealing (he delivers the news, just like John Oliver); during “Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” young Simba and Nala frolick alongside the new generation of animals they will rule over as king and queen; “Mbube,” otherwise known as the song about how “the lion sleeps tonight,” is now its own engaging dance number. There’s also a little more plot exposition. We finally know, for example, how Scar got that distinctive marker.
Still, the fears born out of the trailer, that real-life animals might be too static for the kind of emotions needed to pull this off, are only half true. The casting is spot on, and much of the new voice-work is excellent. Eichner and Rogen in particular, give their own great chemistry-laden spin on the iconic duo. But it’s an undeniable fact that real lions just aren’t that facially expressive, which makes it insanely weird when they suddenly start talking. In their case, the personality that came with the quirky movements and facial expressions in the animated version are lost.
It’s particularly obvious in the case of Scar, who, rather than deliver his lines with the languid flamboyance of a dandy gone to seed, is instead just a mangy lion with a chip on his shoulder. (His rendition of “Be Prepared,” is the most disappointing in the film, turning a joyously evil villain song into a spoken word poem.) Same goes for Rafiki (voiced by John Kani), who doesn’t even bop Simba on the head during his tell-off. Instead, he just gives a wise lecture, free of the bizarre exuberance that endeared him to me as a child. And while Glover’s voice may give a full-body frisson when you first hear it mid-"Hakuna Matata,” the dude-bro slacker vibe that comes with watching a grown cartoon lion swing in on a vine is no more. Other animals fare a lot better, perhaps because they’re smaller? In Zazu’s case, it’s almost certainly because I find it easy to imagine John Oliver’s face on any type of bird.
As befits any role occupied by Beyoncé, Nala has more screen time in this version, and it’s a welcome change. Is there anything more gutting than hearing Queen Bey tell you: “I’m disappointed”? Anything more rousing than her call to her fellow lions to “attack” during the climactic final battle? She also lends her voice to an original song, “Spirit,” which is by far the best of all the original songs Disney has tried to squeeze into its live action reboots.
If the purpose of a live action is to say something new, The Lion King falls short. Scar’s populist speech to the hyenas about reclaiming their place after years of being kept down by a wise, and rational leader certainly takes on a different meaning in our current political climate, even without the original’s colorful goose-stepping choreography. But even with the updated dialogue and jokes about “local” produce, the result still feels less magical without the original's dynamic spurts of originality and weirdness that allowed us to suspend our disbelief, and revel in the moment.
And with that, I leave you with a blessed image.