Nothing says redundant, unnecessary, and unneeded like a beat-for-beat, (nearly) shot-for-shot remake of a beloved animated classic like the faux-live-action (re) iteration of Disney’s beloved, 1994 animated classic, The Lion King. Since its premiere twenty-five years ago, The Lion King has become a permanent pop-culture fixture, passed on from generation to generation as one of – if not, the – highlights of Disney’s animation renaissance. Like practically ever Disney film-turned –classic, it’s become a self-perpetuating brand of its own, expanding to straight-to-video sequels, animated TV series, and a Broadway musical that’s become the highest grossing musical of all time. In short, we didn’t need a faux-live-action remake of a classic, maybe just a re-release or even a big-screen, old school animated sequel. For the Disney Industrial Complex eager to exploit its back catalog of animated classics, a live-action (or faux-live-action) version of The Lion King was all but inevitable. Just because you can, though, doesn’t mean you should. The bland, dull, ultimately soporific result, however, suggests that for once, the Disney Industrial Complex erred badly.
A spectacular failure of imagination – with maybe one or two exceptions – The Lion King (2019) unfolds with remarkable predictability. Remarkable because it shows the lengths – or lack thereof – that the Disney Industrial Complex will go to regurgitate the same plot elements, the same story beats, and even the same scenes to tap into audience nostalgia for the 1994 classic original. Rehiring James Earl Jones to voice the ill-dated Mufasa seems less an act of admiration or respect for one of the preeminent actors of his or any generation than a shameless attempt to reconnect audiences to the original and more importantly, the emotions and feelings they experienced the first and second (and third) time around with the original. Mufasa remains the familiar kind-hearted, benevolent ruler of the Pride Lands, a firm believer in the so-called “Circle of Life” (more like a “Pyramid of Life” with lions at the apex and every herbivore below them, but Disney would prefer not to go there), a mentor and father to his first-born and heir, Simba (JD McCrary), and a loving husband to wife, Sarabi (Alfre Woodard).
While Mufasa believes in balance – old-school conservation, using, not overusing or exploiting resources, including sources of food – his younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has an entirely different dream altogether: Using power, violence, and fear to rule, exploiting resources until they’re fully exhausted. The contrast and conflict between Mufasa and Scar had as much relevance in 1994 as it does now. It’s easy – maybe too easy – to imagine Scar, the bitter, resentful, wannabe dictator resembling the current occupant of the White House. It’s just as easy to imagine Scar’s resemblance as being coincidental, a reflection of narrative needs (i.e., balancing Mufasa and Simba’s heroism with Scar’s villainy). He may be as cruel, but he’s also far more cunning, a forward, strategic thinker. Whatever the reason, The Lion King remake leans into Scar’s villainy just as heavily as the original did.
The Lion King remake reintroduces Simba first as a naïve, innocent cub, learning the ways of the Pride Lands from his patient, considerate father-king before falling prey to Scar’s machinations, inadvertently contributing to Mufasa’s death by wildebeest stampede, fleeing in guilt and shame, meeting Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a flatulent warthog, and Timon (Billy Eichner), a neurotic meerkat, singing “Hakuna Matata” (no worries in Swahili), and growing up mid-song into a princely lion (voiced by Donald Glover). Aside from a few scene extensions, an extra line of dialogue here or there, and restaged action scenes meant to leverage the computing power of ten thousand server farms while embracing a more “realistic” approach to action, The Lion King uses the 1994 original as a surprise-free, scene-by-scene blueprint. It’s only a matter of time before Simba’s childhood friend turned potential queen, Nala (Beyoncé), shows up, forcing Simba to revisit his childhood loss, trauma, and presumed responsibility for his father’s death. Before long, Simba makes the chasm-sized lump from lifetime slacker to warrior-prince, eager to venture back to the Pride Lands and retake the crown from his uncle and his uncle’s allies, perpetually hungry, outcast hyenas (they’ve been excluded from the Circle of Life).
When all is said and done – when the box-office receipts have been tallied – The Lion King remake will stand as a perfect example of pathologically risk-averse, creatively bankrupt studio filmmaking. That’s not to say the team of animators who worked night and day (and weekends) to create the vivid, vividly realized virtual environments and backgrounds of the Pride Lands. They’re practically indistinguishable from the real (our) world or at least the world found onscreen in Disney Nature documentaries. The animated, talking animals, including the hero lions, however, periodically veer from the nearly real to the obviously animated. That’s less a problem than the constant distraction of watching near-real animals in near-real environments talk and dance and sing, replicating, duplicating, and otherwise badly imitating the original’s brilliant mix of colorfully expressive, old-school, traditional animation and Elton John and Tim Rice’s earworm-quality songs. Commerce wins, art loses, but the original will always remain.