Disney is showing no signs of slowing down in its quest to do "live-action" remakes for its animated classics, and Jon Favreau's updated take on one of the studio's most iconic films — "The Lion King" — is the latest of the bunch. While the trailers have shown off the movie's wild CGI visuals, how does the film itself stack up to the original? Here's what the reviews say.
The Visuals Are, As Promised, Truly Astounding
Technically speaking, it's a marvel. Jon Favreau's "live action" remake of Disney's The Lion King possesses all the immersive detail and tactile immediacy of an unusually good nature documentary. It transports us. We can practically feel the fur on these animals, and we want to duck away from their thundering heels as the camera breathlessly rushes us through trembling grass and craggy ravines. It's hard to imagine that this has all been created in a studio, and that almost none of it is real.
Unquestionably, this film's visuals are detailed and remarkable to behold, in the same way that it's remarkable to behold a visual-effects demonstration of the newest, sleekest technology at a consumer expo. There's little doubt that the money poured into making a vivid, photorealistic version of the African plains has paid off.
The ostensible creative reason for the update is the advance in computer animation yielding imagery so realistic that the result is called "virtual cinematography," meaning that the animals and dramatic African backdrops indisputably look like the real thing, as if shot on location… The highest praise one could bestow upon [the VFX team] is that all the images look real, which they really do; there's even one shot with pretend camera glare.
And While The Songs Are Still There (Kind Of)…
Voices also matter in the singing, where all the familiar musical numbers, from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to the Tim Rice-Elton John standards "Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata" and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" benefit from fresh producing by Pharrell Williams with African vocal and choir arrangements produced by Lebo M.
There is also a rerecording of Hans Zimmer's Oscar-winning score, a new Rice/John song, "Never Too Late," sung by John, and Beyoncé singing her new "Spirit." Calling the current film a musical would not be that much of a stretch.
Overall, the songs pose a unique challenge to Favreau's approach, since he's striving for realism — or at least the illusion that we're watching flesh-and-blood animals — whereas the original belongs to that period of Disney animation when the stories often halted to make room for Broadway-style showtunes. Rather than replicating the Busby Berkeley-style choreography of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," the director does a fantastic job of reimagining this sequence, tipping his hat to certain memorable shots without anthropomorphizing the animals too much.
… The Speaking And Singing Animals Too Often Enter The Uncanny Valley
The photorealism is striking and impressive, but something feels weird about the voices. It's not like people can't imagine talking lions, of course. But it's distracting in a way that's not ideal — it's uncanny and disjointed at the same time, as if real zoo animals are being anthropomorphized.
And then the animals start to talk. At first, it looks as if the lions are telepathic, and then they seem so badly dubbed that you wish they had been. The more adorable characters are easier to believe, as their cuteness allows for an extra dash of anthropomorphized fun, but the vocal performances aren't equipped to carry the emotional weight that the hand-drawn animation once expressed on its own.
Timon And Pumba (Voiced By Billy Eichner And Seth Rogen) Are Highlights, Though
The scene-stealers are Billy Eichner's Timon and Seth Rogen's Pumbaa, no surprise because their characters are the most divergent from the source material. Where the other actors are left to say nearly all the original film's dialogue, Eichner and Rogen just seem to be naturally riffing off each other, to hilarious effect.
The highlight of this new cast is Billy Eichner as Timon, perhaps the only cast member who really feels like they're offering a new interpretation that's entirely different from his predecessor without changing the character at all. Thanks to some solid chemistry with Seth Rogen's Pumbaa, it all works really well and gives the audience a few moments to laugh at some new jokes they haven't already heard before.
But All In All, The Original Film's Magic Is Missing
If The Lion King wins the Oscar for Best VFX, it will probably deserve it on the technical merits of what they accomplished. And yet VFX are supposed to help tell the story, and here they clearly hinder it. The emphasis on photorealism means you lose the dramatic flourishes and theatricality the movie needs to thrive.
[T]his soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail… Most often, the animation is just bland in a way that saps the characters of their personalities. Scar used to be a Shakespearian villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he's just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Disney is going for essentially The Lion King redone as a Disney nature documentary, and that is not an objectively poor decision. However, by default or by decree, we lose so much in the trade off. It does make a difference when Rafiki halfheartedly holds up the newborn Simba for public view rather than thrusting him into the air in an iconic moment that has become the bane of house cats everywhere for 25 years. That sets the tone for the movie as a whole, where almost every line of comparatively colorful dialogue, every moment of spur-of-the-moment wit and every moment of comparatively devilish behavior is ironed out for the most straight-faced or "honorable" delivery.
[It] looks like a nature documentary. But it plays more like an especially glitzy presentation reel at a trade convention, with popular songs and high-end talent pushing an exciting new product that nobody is sure quite how to use.
"Who really cares about the story, when the technology is so utterly astounding?" appears to be the film's mentality.
Watch The Trailer
You can buy tickets to see "The Lion King" here.