Looks aren’t everything.
Disney’s latest remake of an animated classic delivers a visually impressive cinematic experience that fails to hold muster over the course of two hours.
Released 25 years after the two-time Oscar winning original in 1994, “The Lion King” swaps hand drawn cartoon animation for near perfect, photo realistic computer graphics.
In so doing, Disney and director Jon Favreau have excised the soul of the film as a sacrifice to visual innovation.
The plot of “The Lion King” hasn’t been altered in any significant way in spite of being 20-plus minutes longer.
All the iconic songs penned by Elton John and Tim Rice are still there though sung by new voice talent. The script itself seems to be identical word for word by in large.
Yet something significant is missing.
Lion cub Simba still longs to be king of the Pride Lands, succeeding his father Mufasa, until a fateful stampede orchestrated by his nefarious uncle Scar changes the Pride Lands forever and sends Simba into exile.
What stands out most in the 2019 version of “The Lion King” are fantastic, revolutionary computer graphic work from the Disney Studios team to elevate a plethora of wild animals to a National Geographic documentary level sharpness. Each creature looks like viewers could reach out onto the screen and touch a live animal, and this sensation is oftentimes mesmerizing.
By insisting on a photo-realistic interpretation of “The Lion King,” however, all sense of emotion is lost, and the joy young audiences felt watching the original for the first time won’t be as pronounced here.
When the animals talk, their mouths move in small, natural ways that don’t seem as fluid as they should and Favreau often positions the camera on the side or behind the speaker to minimize this animation.
Showing the animals in such a documentarian way eliminates the cartoonish playfulness a young Simba brings to songs like “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” or his genuine sadness at the end of the stampede.
It’s nearly impossible to animate true emotion in this style and the film solely relies on vocal performance to get audiences emotionally invested in the characters.
There are more name actors providing voice work in the 2019 version than the 1994 original, though the only holdover talent – James Earl Jones as Mufasa – is both the most obvious and best choice to reprise a role in the new film. Jones’ voice elevates the material and gives immediate gravitas.
Most of the newcomers are fine; Donald Glover works as the older Simba and John Oliver’s riff on the bird Zazu has a lot of charm in spite of the fact Oliver cannot sing.
Billy Eichner often steals scenes with his frantic, sarcasm heavy turn as the meerkat Timon and he has great chemistry with Seth Rogen, who is an awkward fit as warthog Pumbaa as his heavy belly chuckle evokes too many of the stoner comedies the Canadian actor is known for
BeyoncéKnowles-Carter stands out like a sore thumb as the biggest stunt casting in the film.
Though she can sing better than almost anyone on the planet, her acting doesn’t really hold water as her voice fluctuates while delivering dialogue between obvious reading off the script in monotone and concert-level hype yelling.
As in most recent Disney films, there’s a female empowerment action sequence randomly inserted with little setup or impact on the plot, this time led by a Knowles-Carter power yell reminiscent of Destiny’s Child.
Knowles-Carter does contribute a new song to the film, “Spirit,” sung in part during a visually stagnant running montage that doesn’t add anything to the film except an excuse to cram in a Beyoncé song.
There’s a strong chance that “The Lion King” may get shut out entirely come awards season as its questionable eligibility and poor critic scores may keep Disney from fighting a battle for its inclusion in the best animated feature category, especially given the strength of “Toy Story 4” and the upcoming “Frozen 2.”
The best bet for “The Lion King” is a nod in visual effects, which are largely stunning and could follow in the realistic CGI footsteps of a film like “War for the Planet of the Apes” to earn a nomination. Disney may also opt to push “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in that category to the detriment of a “Lion King” nod here as well.
As good as the visual enhancements look, everything else about “The Lion King” is so underwhelming that fighting the crowds to see this remake in theaters might not be worth the expense.
Instead of validating Disney’s cash-grab insistence on reimagining their entire animated catalog, staying home to watch the 1994 original and taking a chance on a DisneyNature documentary instead is probably the better option.