The kindest thing I can say about Disney’s new film The Lion King is that it exists. The much-touted “live action” remake is adequate, and does in fact manage to deliver on its basic premise. There are lions. They are kings! Beyoncé is there! Billy Eichner cracks jokes! It is, generally speaking, a very pretty nature documentary. As to whether the film is any good is a different conversation entirely. There are a lot of disparate elements to Beyoncé and Friends: The Movie, but none of them seem to coalesce into anything more than a naked money grab.
It’s a pity, because there was no reason that a film with a cast that included the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, and James Earl Jones should be as flat and uninteresting as this was. Disney assembled a bigger, better, and blacker cast for this second bite at the apple (third, if you count the Tony-winning, highest-grossing-in-the-history-of-Broadway stage adaptation,) but failed to do anything exciting or novel with it. Even “Spirit,” the new track from Beyoncé (a gorgeous song that I love very much, please tell the BeyHive to leave my family alone) feels intensely market-tested to be just commercial enough to stay top of mind when Oscars nomination season opens.
The biggest, most glaring problem with the film is that it’s difficult to build an emotional story arc around a set of animal characters that are deliberately not anthropomorphized. Real lions do not smile, or sing or otherwise express human emotions. But if millennials are to be believed, the original 1994 version of The Lion King was so impactful precisely because of its high emotional stakes.
If your characters can’t convey the depth of their feeling or meaningfully signal their inner journey to the audience, all you’re left with is an inert waste of everyone’s time in which large sections of the film read like a poor audio dubbing of something on the National Geographic channel. For such a strong cast, the actual performances are surprisingly touch and go. Evaluations below.
Most of the adult cast does not quite live up to the expectations built from their previous work, but Young Simba (JD McCrary) and Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are quite good, with strong singing voices that don’t feel distracting or out of place.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Scar suffered immensely from extreme lion-face; very little of the depth he tried to bring to the role with his voice came through on the screen. And while there are legitimate reasons why the queer-coded animated original performance from Jeremy Irons doesn’t work for a 2019 audience, the character elements that gave Scar a little sass in 1994 also helped distinguish him from the other lions, gave him some flair and style and made him a much more compelling villain.
James Earl Jones’s performance as Mufasa suffered similar problems, but the familiar and nostalgic rumble of his deep voice made it easier to forgive.
Alfre Woodard’s Sarabi required very little of her, and it showed. Woodard can do stately and regal in her sleep, and it seems this time she might have. Florence Kasumba’s Shenzi, on the other hand, was quite interesting. She’s a talented voice actress and makes a meal of a relatively small part, bringing a believable sense of menace and danger to a story where we already know the ending. But much of the supporting cast felt superfluous and miscast.
While I intellectually understand the decision to cast John Oliver as Zazu and am sure he’s a lovely man, his voice is so distinctive as to be frustratingly distracting when it appears outside the immediate context of his face.
Donald Glover’s Simba is not bad and he is a more adept voice actor that I expected, but as with the rest of the cast, very little of the work he did broke free of the hyper-real animation. I was however, quite pleased at the genuine chemistry he had with Beyoncé in her role as Nala. Their eventual reunion in the middle of the film felt sweet and engaging. It was one of the few times the film made me feel anything at all. But partnering the two in a duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was an unkind choice designed to humiliate Glover specifically. His vocals are near non-existent on the track, and his perfectly serviceable voice became a tinny irritation next to her booming, confident vocal gymnastics.
I’ve written before about Beyoncé’s skill as an actress and my thoughts are largely unchanged here, except to say that it is was immensely clear that she recorded her part alone. Many of her line readings don’t quite match the energy of the other actors in a given scene, which got to be distracting as the story wore on. While she definitely isn’t bad in the role by any means, she likely would have benefited from having someone to play to—perhaps it’s an unfortunate consequence of being one of the most recognizable people in the world, but there was never a time when I wasn’t immensely aware that Beyoncé was being Beyoncé.
As much as it pains me to admit it, Billy Eichner is the true star of this film. Though his Billy On The Street shtick gets grating fast, as Timon he is funny, sarcastic, dry, and perfectly suited for animation. He gets most of the best, funniest line and delivers them with a casual verve. His singing voice is clear and high and utterly delightful, which was a wonderful surprise. Both “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” benefit substantially from the energetic dimension he brings to their melodies. Overall, his witty performance comes closest to justifying the existence of this film.
Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa is aggressively fine. There is nothing overtly offensive about it, and he does amuse. But eliminating him from the story would have done little to affect my enjoyment of the film.
And that’s to say nothing of the actual story. We need to talk about whether or not lions respect the incest taboo. That might seem like an inappropriate request for what is, in fact, a movie for children, but it was all I could think about after realizing that the fraught politics of Pride Rock are largely dependent on the fact that Mufasa, Scar, and Simba appear to be the only male lions in their pride. What was the succession plan? There are approximately seven lionesses in the pride and two cubs, but who are their fathers? Are Simba and Nala secretly siblings? These are questions that need answers!
Overall, the film’s biggest problem is that the hyper-focus on realism in the animation stripped the story of what made the 1994 original so memorable. Similar to the issues that plagued Will Smith’s Genie in the live-action Aladdin remake earlier this year, the hand-drawn aspect of the classic films allowed for an element of fantasy that was integral to connecting with audiences 25 years ago. No matter how much they try to convince us otherwise, it seems “the magic of Disney” might be taking a brief sabbatical.
The Lion King is currently in theaters.