Disney’s photorealistic CG remake of its own old-school 1994 musical classic is, like their recent redo of Aladdin, a wholly unnecessary and ho-hum affair that leaves you wondering why they – or you – bothered.
Co-produced and solely directed by Marvel big-timer Jon Favreau (also of that superior new version of The Jungle Book), it’s an all-star-voiced, multi-million dollar epic which manages to be both dully similar to the first film yet pointlessly different from it as well, and offers fancy modern animation that looks real yet plainly isn’t. Psychologists tend to call this the ‘uncanny valley’ effect but, whatever label is applied, it’s annoying.
In the African savanna the lion cub Simba (J.D. McCrary’s voice at this point) is born to be ‘King Of The Pridelands’, and there’s a recreation of the famous sequence from the original where all the area’s animals gather to gape in awe at their new baby ruler when they really should be eating each other (and Jeff Nathanson’s script thereafter ties itself in knots trying to explain why half the cast here aren’t chowing down on the other half). Naïve Simba tries to learn how to be King from his noble Dad Mufasa (James Earl Jones recreating his vocal role from the original), and he’s threatened at every step by Mufasa’s malevolent brother Scar, who’s sinisterly voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
In the first film Jeremy Irons camped it up as a full-throttle Disney baddie and traumatised a generation of children, but this new Scar is an altered creation offering more in common with the almost tragic tiger Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Somewhat smaller in stature than Mufasa and almost mangy-looking, he’s a cruel and dangerous beast, to be sure, yet we almost sympathise with him. But not quite.
Of course, the older Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover/Childish Gambino) winds up feeling painfully responsible for the death of Mufasa (no spoilers necessary because every kid knows that), and when he leaves the Pridelands in shame, Scar takes over with help from some nasty hyenas and, it’s implied, makes the lionesses his unwilling harem. Simba then falls in with pseudo-Shakespearean-comic-relief types Timon (a pushy meerkat voiced by Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (a flatulent warthog voiced by Seth Rogen), who preach an anti-responsibility ideology while singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight, munching on grubs and insects (we don’t want to upset anyone!) and trying hard to be funny.
The voice talent here are okay (including satirist John Oliver as Zazu, a red-billed hornbill and the King’s majordomo), and no expense was spared in the animation, but that’s simply not enough, and the attempts to shoehorn in some ‘girl/lioness power’ by, for example, eventually giving Simba’s girlfriend Nala (voiced by Beyoncé) more to do feel distinctly forced.
And yet, overall, there’s simply not enough here to get upset or offended about on just about any level – not even the fact that Elton John’s beloved songs have been so blandly rerecorded by others. And can you feel the cynicism tonight?
The Lion King (PG) is in cinemas now