“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is a big romantic duet in The Lion King, and at one point the lioness Nala speculates about what her love interest Simba is thinking. She sings, “Why won’t he be the king I know he is? The king I see inside.” In this updated version with photorealistic visual effects, what we see in Simba is a dull, expressionless face. The song’s tension, therefore, is about as flat as the Serengeti plains. Directed by Jon Favreau, whose remake of The Jungle Book was a huge critical and commercial success, The Lion King is a colossal blunder, a film so artless and bland that it may confuse younger audiences.
At first, there is nothing apparently wrong. Favreau recreates “Circle of Life,” with all manner of fauna congregating for the birth of Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult). Special effects may have never looked this realistic: You can see every wrinkle and hair on giraffes and zebras. But after the dramatic title card, the lions start to talk and there is a dearth of Disney magic. In the original Lion King, all the animals were wonderfully expressive. They are not as anthropomorphized here, to the point where it is difficult to attach a voice with a face. It seems like the imagery and soundtrack are from two different films.
That lack of Disney magic is also present in the musical numbers. Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, Simba’s uncle who ultimately commits regicide, and he performs “Be Prepared” without the wit or energy of Jeremy Irons’ iconic vocal performance. Favreau does not want his animals to be too human, so he abandons impressionistic flourishes like a fascistic hyena march. Even “Hakuna Matata,” a total crowd-pleaser of a tune, plays out with little creativity or passion. Billy Eichner voices Timon the meerkat, and he is the only actor who elevates the material: His voice is energetic and exaggerated enough to be engaging. If Disney learns anything from this fiasco, it should be to hire more skilled voice talent. Beyoncé stars as adult Nala, and while she imbues “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” with emotion, she is much more skilled as a singer than as a voice actor.
The original Lion King was about 90 minutes long, and this version is nearly two hours. You may be wondering what Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson updated. Some scenes take longer to unfold, mostly as an opportunity to show off the animation’s rich detail. There are also some new sequences, like when a tuft of hair travels from Simba all the way to Rafiki (John Kani), the film’s spiritual center. At one point, that hair is swallowed and shat out by a giraffe, so there is a long sequence in which we literally watch a sphere of dung roll through the jungle. Without the 1994 film as a reference point, this Lion King would be bizarre at best, incomprehensible at worst. Long stretches require the audience to reference the older film, just so they can follow the new one.
The quality of the special effects is undeniable. It is amazing what artist and animator teams can accomplish nowadays, and The Lion King is at the forefront of moviemaking technology. What Favreau fails to understand is the greater purpose behind the special effects. The original Lion King is now technologically primitive, but it engages our emotions on a primal level. When Simba internalizes his guilt over his father’s death, we share his shame, and so we understand his reluctance to return home. The best special effects are not the most advanced, but the most engaging to our imaginations. That is why children return to Disney classics over and over again, and why they will regard this Lion King with indifference. Some of the faces, such as the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), are also too accurate (i.e. ugly) to establish anything close to a genuine connection.
In the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog comments on the life of Timothy Treadwell, a man who communed with bears until they ultimately ate him alive. He says, “In all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” The same could be said about the creatures in The Lion King, who were once lovable and now deserve to be spurned.
The Lion King opens Friday in theaters everywhere.