THE LION KING
directed by Jon Favreau
A naturalistic remake of the 1994 Disney hit cartoon musical will bring in the dough, but it just doesn't quite work.
There are other reasons the new Lion King, in which Mrs Knowles-Carter voices love-interest lioness Sala, is likely to generate the GDP of a small sub-Saharan country. That’s even if this remake of the 1994 Disney cartoon musical also feels as though it’s been declawed in some ways and doesn’t quite work in others.
That original had classic status bestowed on it, despite a story that wasn’t an enduring fairy tale of the sort Disney had tapped for decades. Basically, it was – and still is – a kitset of Bambi, Hamlet and Moses. It could also be read as an appreciation for benevolent hereditary monarchies of kindly apex predators.
The story might have been slight, but the original’s animation (it was the studio’s last big hand-drawn hit), Elton John/Tim Rice songs and coating of African eco-mysticism were enough to seed a franchise. Its place in pop culture was enhanced by Julie Taymor’s imaginative spin-off stage musical, which has Hakuna Matata-ed around the world since 1997, grossing some US$8 billion, roughly eight times more than the film.
So, as with the recent live-action renditions of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the films are as much encores to the blockbuster stage productions as the films that spawned them. Which means the new Lion King could never have gone without the songs, as director Jon Favreau’s 2016 previous foray into zoological digitisation for Disney, The Jungle Book, did, just using hints of the 1967 cartoon in its soundtrack.
So, here, songs such as I Just Can’t Wait to be King and Can You Feel the Love Tonight emanate from the furry, feathery, toothy, beaky and snouty cast. It takes some getting used to. There’s an expressiveness disconnect between the songs’ emotional content and the visual performances that wasn’t a problem with the anthropomorphic predecessor. It can make some songs just waft past before the music reverts back to Hans Zimmer’s Afro-wallpaper soundtrack. Even Beyoncé’s new track, Spirit, doesn’t have much impact.
Elsewhere in the voice department, James Earl Jones is back from the 1994 film and ready to rumble as the original lion king, Mufasa, while the likes of Donald Glover (grown Simba), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Uncle Scar) and Alfre Woodard (Simba’s mother, Sarabi) give an Afrocentric leaning to the pride. The edgy comedy and hip-hop presence of Glover is nowhere to be heard and Ejiofor isn’t as memorably evil as his predecessor, Jeremy Irons, although his hyena co-conspirators in regicide help bring up the threat level.
Among the comedy sidekicks, Billy Eichner as catty meerkat Timon and Seth Rogen as the hoggy warthog Pumbaa are hilarious scene-stealers; John Oliver as the royal retainer hornbill Zazu is markedly less so. The jokes in the Simba-Timon-Pumbaa scenes get a self-aware refresh (“you’ve grown 400lb since we started”, Pumbaa informs the sprouting Simba in one passage-of-time musical montage).
But other than how it all looks, there’s not much difference between how the original played out and how this one does, although it still manages to be 30 minutes longer.
That gives you time to wonder if Sir David Attenborough will pop out of the spookily realistic undergrowth and tell us why that mandrill keeps holding that lion cub aloft. Or, indeed, wonder what Walt Disney – himself a pioneer of the nature documentary, ones that set waltzing scorpions or headbutting mountain goats to music – would think of his empire spending millions animating animals to look exactly like animals.
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This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.