Everything money can buy — including the vocal talents of Beyoncé and Donald Glover and the latest in digital pizazz — has been poured into Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic retake on The Lion King, the 1994 Disney animated classic. What’s missing? Let’s start with intangibles such as heart, soul and the faintest hint of originality. Favreau offers up a shot-by-shot remake of the movie that grossed nearly $1 billion. But unlike his playful approach to 2016’s The Jungle Book — a far lesser example of Disney artistry that served to free him up — Favreau feels hamstrung by the enormity of the task at hand. Never mind that Julie Taylor’s puppet-based stage adaptation of The Lion King took artistic risks that paid off in a long Broadway run that seems to have no ending. Risk is a dirty word this time out. There’s barely a second in this new Lion King that doesn’t reveal what it truly is: a business proposition that uses familiarity as its life raft. Is it technically impressive? You bet. But without the animating spark of life, the story falls flat. There’s no magic in it.
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Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson never strays far from the source material. There’s too much at stake not to stay timid. It’s doubtful there’s a more foolproof opening number than Elton John’s “The Circle of Life. ” Once again we listen to the great James Earl Jones, the only returning actor from the original, bring resonant voice to the role of Mufasa, the lion father who presents his cub Simba (JD McCrary) to his multi-species kingdom of the Pride Lands while Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), and his future love, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), look on. It’s still never in doubt that the Chosen One is a male even when Glover and Beyoncé take on the roles of the grown Simba and Nala.
As ever, the plot pivots on what happens when Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murders Mufasa and puts the blame on Simba clearing his own way to the throne. With the help of Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and her army of scary hyenas, Scar is evil triumphant. The Shakespearean overtones still come through, though it’s at this point that the film’s photo-realism works against the drama. There’s a tradeoff making these animals look as real as they would in a TV nature documentary. Hand-drawn animation brings a warmth and depth of expression impossible to achieve when the animals are rendered so stiffly.
The voices help, especially when Glover and Beyoncé duet on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Welcome comic relief arrives with Seth Rogen as the warthog Pumbaa and Billy Eichner as his meerkat buddy Timon. They bring their own uniquely uproarious comic perspective to their scenes together, especially on the highlight number, “Hakuna Matata.” No worries when these two are vocally set loose. Eichner just crushes the role of Timon, finding laughs previously uninvestigated on-screen.
What a shame that the script never gives the other actors such interpretive freedom. What Bey fan wouldn’t long to watch this goddess lead these lions in formation? Sadly, The Lion King 2019 never dares a major leap into the imagination. In choosing to connect the dots instead of forging a new path into an exciting, unpredictable future, Favreau leaves his film lost in the shadows of what came before, the very definition of an opportunity missed.