‘Lion King’ fails to roar

Timon, Simba, and Pumbaa in The Lion King

“A lion is called a ‘king of beasts’ obviously for a reason.” – Jack Hanna

As a kid, I had an odd disliking for The Lion King. Sure, perhaps I thought it was fine the first time through, but it quickly got overplayed. I just couldn’t see why it was so special the way my peers did.

So no, I am not coming at this with any deep reverence for the 1994 film. Nonetheless, when watching the 2019 CGI (not live action) version, I feel the same pain that fans of that one likely feel.

Young lion Simba (JD McCrary as a child, Donald Glover as an adult) just can’t wait to be king. The current ruler is his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) who presides over a region of the African plains. But Simba’s naievite and thirst for adventure get taken advantage of by his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who sees his chance to at least seize power.

As you can see, this isn’t a radical departure from the Kimba ripoff of 25 years ago. I suppose this is a more tolerable version for those who find the other one annoying or too cutesy, but with that trade off comes a picture having far less vibrancy.

As now customary, some of the more objectionable elements are dealt with. The queer coding on Scar is gone, the stars no longer spell out “SEX.” Not everywhere, though. The male hyenas come across even more as stereotypical hoods than they did before, especially since both actually talk here instead of having one who only psychotically laughs. And if that sounds like a dumb change, there’s more ahead.

It figures that the best (some might say only good) song from the original is the one that gets screwed up the most. The “Be Prepared” done here is barely sung and the sequence lacks any of the excitement and sinister imagery from the first time. Fans of this song are going to feel very insulted.

The other numbers also suffer by comparison. They are far less, well, animated, eschewing the theatricality and memorable stagings. Trying to make the proceedings so “realistic” only highlights how what worked before did so because of the fantastical wonders of traditional animation. Oh, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is done in the daylight. Yes, that happens.

The whole film is drained of vitality. Half of the cast seems bored (though not Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, by far the best thing about this movie; I would love to see these two team up again in true live action some time) and the visuals are not a fraction as colorful as the cartoon. To their credit, the photorealistic graphics are quite impressive. They slip in a couple instances, but for the most part do their job. As a result, however, this leaves the picture just so drab.

Now this kind of thing could work if done for a purpose. Christopher Robin started with a Silent Hill form of the Hundred Acre Wood while Pooh and friends took on weathered appearances. But that film was specifically about the joylessness in the characters’ lives and the aesthetics reflected the mood (and, of course, changed as progressions were made). Here, though, the tone is supposed to be the same as it was in the previous telling. Sure it should be sad in parts, but there’s times where it needs to be bright, too.

With their number of existing animated properties which have nostalgic value running out and the highly ill-advised decisions that have been made about ones in some state of production (really, a Cruella origin story?), this whole Disney “live action” version trend may mercifully be nearing an end. The company has now released four of them in this year alone, and the best of them was Kim Possible. Maybe it’s time to put more faith in hand-drawn animation and/or original properties.

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