‘The Lion King’ Film Review: Impressive Technical Mastery Drains the Life From the Original

Jon Favreau’s remake looks incredibly literal, but the digital animal performers lack the facial expressions and body movement to tell the story

The Lion King Mufasa Simba
Walt Disney Studios

Jon Favreau’s remake of the Disney classic “The Lion King” is one of the most interesting productions of the year — from a craft standpoint, at least. The filmmakers spared no expense to turn this story about anthropomorphic animals, conservationism and regicide into a photo-realistic animated feature, with animals so painstakingly rendered that one could — if one weren’t paying close attention — confuse them for the real thing.

It’s an impressive technical achievement, but as detailed as the imagery is, it’s anything but “realistic,” because real animals don’t talk, they don’t sing, nor do they make funny pop-culture references. This distinction isn’t just academic; it’s integral to understanding the fundamental irony of the production. Realism was never possible for “The Lion King.” It’s a fundamentally fantastical story, and yet Favreau & Co. have eschewed the fantastical representation of these characters and their world. Subsequently, the contrast between the impossible events happening on-screen and the hyper-realism of the imagery doesn’t always work in the the movie’s favor.

In other words, this new version of “TheLion King” isn’t realism; it’s literalism. This is what it would actually look like if the events in a Disney animated movie happened in real life. Sometimes it’s fascinating, frequently it’s ludicrous, and sometimes — like when an incredibly realistic animal dies on-screen in front of you while its only child mourns him — it’s borderline grotesque.

“The Lion King” tells the story of a lion cub named Simba, voiced by JD McRary as a cub and Donald Glover as an adult (with a team of animators contributing to this and every other performance). Simba is heir to the throne — well, anyway, the biggest rock — of the Pride Lands, an idyllic swath of African savannah where all the animals live together in relative harmony.

Of course King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) has to eat some of his subjects every day just to survive, but we don’t see much of that. Besides, it’s all part of “The Circle of Life,” a philosophy of ecological harmony that Simba is expected to adopt and maintain once it’s his turn to be king.

That philosophy is anathema to Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He’s a Machiavellian villain who plans to murder the king and prince, take over the Pride Lands and exploit its resources, filling the bellies of the ruling class while killing off the rest of the countryside in the process.

Scar’s schemes work exceptionally well: he tricks Simba into exploring a ravine, connives wicked hyenas into starting a deadly stampede, then murders Mufasa in the chaos and tells Simba it’s all his fault.

Simba flees and meets up with two ne’er-do-wells, meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Since they’re at the bottom of the food chain, they don’t see life as a noble circle, but rather as a straight line that will inevitably lead to their consumption. So they convince Simba to leave his past behind and focus instead on enjoying a carefree existence, all while Scar takes over the Pride Lands and turns it rapidly into an arid desert.

It’s all very Shakespearean and operatic, a story told in broad painterly strokes that capture the imagination and convey meaningful themes via borderline Aesopian allegory. That’s why telling this story in extreme visual detail sometimes does it no favors: The characters are arch, but most of them now lack the expressive body language and sympathetic facial movements needed to sell their performances. They just stand there and deliver their lines with relatively blank expressions, relying on the human actors to add inflection, like levity or menace. Their bodies are realistic, but their animated performances are frequently stodgy and unconvincing.

A few performers stand out in this process. Ejiofor is a wonderfully menacing Scar, with a patois of frustrated condescension that’s a welcome counterpoint to the straightforward reverence of the other lion actors. Eichner and Rogen seem to have completely rebelled against the film’s stalwart devotion to the original, adding new jokes and some meta-references to other Disney films. Also, unlike everyone else in the movie, they actually sound like they were recorded at the same time, in the same room, and were having an actual conversation. While Timon and Pumbaa are on screen, the movie shakes off its glum fealty and actually seems, if not “real,” then genuinely alive.

The screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”), but it’s incredibly faithful to the original film, keeping almost the entire structure and much of the dialogue intact. There’s not much more to say about the adaptation; it’s so familiar that this new “Lion King” makes Guy Ritchie’s seemingly redundant “Aladdin” remake seem like it had a daring and fresh new take on the material.

Meanwhile, Favreau and his director of photography Caleb Deschanel painstakingly recreate many of the images from the original film, and editors Mark Livolsi and Adam Gerstel (“The Jungle Book”) cut them together more-or-less the same way. It’s an incredibly safe way to make an experimental film, allowing the filmmakers to evoke the audience’s collective, vivid memories of a more expressive production even as they remove most of the actual expressions. It’s hard to imagine these newer, stiffer performances making the same impression on a generation of youngsters as the more vividly realized emotions of the 2D original, but since the dramatic camera angles are the same in both versions, they’ll probably get the gist of it.

As for the musical numbers, the word “mixed” comes loudly to mind. Scar’s big villain number loses a lot of its oomph, thanks in part to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Rex Harrison-ing of the lyrics, as well as Favreau’s decision to remove the literal goose-stepping hyenas. Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (playing Simba’s fiancée Nala) perform a rousing rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” but their performances are offset by the filmmakers’ distracting and frankly confusing decision to set the whole scene in the late afternoon instead of, well, night.

There are moments in Favreau’s “The Lion King” where all the animation seems to melt away, where only the best performers are on screen, and this beloved story comes across in all of its beautiful grandeur. The rest of the time it plays like a fascinating but only half-successful proof of concept for this new technology. By adhering so close to the original film, this new “Lion King” seems desperate to hide all its brand-new narrative deficiencies, most of which stem from the very technology with which Disney is trying to impress us.

But that technology is certainly a wonder, and perhaps there is another film in the future that could make better use of it to tell a fantastic story, instead of draining most of the fantastic out of a pre-existing, classic tale. As it stands, “The Lion King” is mostly to be recommended for its visual spectacle. It is absolutely worth seeing on a very big screen, if only to appreciate the incredible technical accomplishment. Filmmakers have attempted to make photorealistic animated movies before, including Disney, but they’ve never come this close before — if only on a technical level, this film is surely to be commended.

It may not be the best animated movie of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most lush and ambitious. Had all its spectacle been genuinely spectacular, this new “Lion King” might have earned that crown.