D: Jon Favreau
S: Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Chiwitel Efiojor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen
It’s not that the story was ever unworthy of retelling. After all, the musical amassed legions of new fans and is now the third longest-running show in Broadway history. And, lest we forget, last year’s local run still has Pinoy audiences hung over. So, of course, it had to be part of the remake spree, whether we like it or not. It sure feels timely, especially with the original, the peak of the 90s Disney Renaissance, marking its 25th anniversary this year. But is it necessary? Moot and academic: the Mulan trailer is out, Dumbo and Aladdin reincarnated two months apart last summer, and we now know who’s playing Ariel. They’ll keep doing it because they can. But as far as this leonine tale is concerned, there are huge gambles. For one, the fact that a more evocative and more spectacular adaptation already exists, regardless of medium, spells struggle.
The Lion King is director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) second Disney reboot. He’d already been attached to this project since 2016, fresh from the success of his Visual Effects Oscar-winning The Jungle Book. (That was better). Now, to file this update under “live action” would be incongruous, since, technically, we don’t see actual living organisms on-screen. This is still essentially an animated film, albeit one that employs photo-realistic imagery to render Pride Rock and its residents more lifelike than ever. Because, really, who wouldn’t want a fluffier Simba? No, it’s not entirely shot-for-shot either, even with screenwriter Jeff Nathanson recycling most of the original dialogue. Expect minor tweaks, like more animal cameos, scarier hyenas, and Rafiki no longer wielding a staff.
$260 million was reportedly spent to visually upgrade the epic fable, replete with updated all-star voice cast. James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa; the rest are new to the pride. Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino) takes over as Adult Simba, the titular hero who’s basically Hamlet with a mane. Oscar nominee Chiwitel Ejiojor (12 Years a Slave) sends chills as his murderous uncle Scar. John Oliver plays overbearing hornbill Zazu with panache. Billy Eichner delivers sass as Timon and Seth Rogen fits the Pumbaa role like a glove. The roster delivers, but something vital is compromised.
It’s been said that the harder CGI strives to look real, the more it exposes its artifice. That applies here. The greater challenge in achieving realism in the first place was having to factor in the physical limitations of animals, more specifically, their lack of facial expression. How else can the emotional impact be recreated? It was easier to hack in previous critter-themed remakes. The Jungle Book at least had Mowgli. Dumbo had Colin Farrell. And 101 Dalmatians did away with talking pooches altogether because Glenn Close was already a one-woman show. With no homo sapiens interjecting in this story, the shift from hand-drawn to quasi-real becomes creaky. It’s hard to appreciate the enthusiasm of a capable cast, much more the narrative build-ups, when all we see are moving beaks and snouts. It’s like watching a wildlife documentary scored by Hans Zimmer.
Speaking of which, if there’s one thing that still keeps this remake from flatlining, it’s the music. Beloved tunes by Elton John and Tim Rice are still utilized, but not all deliver the same impact. Circle of Life is still the bravura opening it’s reputed to be. Hakuna Matata feels rushed. Gone is the eye-popping spectacle of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, though it still highlights Young Simba’s precociousness. Fans of Scar’s sinister march, Be Prepared to be dismayed; it’s reduced to a short soliloquy here. But attenuated as these covers are, their presence is still more than welcome.
Another formidable new pride member is Beyonce, who lends her trademark run-the-world ferocity to Simba’s flame, Nala. With her on board, expect new songs. Or, even better: A full album. Listen to The Lion King: The Gift, an alternative soundtrack curated for an enhanced storytelling experience. Its carrier single, Spirit, plays like a Circle of Life/Can You Feel the Love Tonight B-Side and sounds destined for Awards Season glory. Wait for an excerpt during a pivotal scene.
Unfortunately, Queen B can only infuse so much soul into this anthropomorphic affair. Everything else staggers, like the lone wildebeest left behind by its herd in that tragic stampede sequence. Whether or not it eventually catches up, no one knows for sure – same way we’re not sure if this version will be remembered past its cinematic run. It’s almost always pointless to pit an update against the original. But when the former dissipates everything we love about the latter, it becomes inevitable. That holds true in this limping tribute. It just doesn’t move us all.