The Cats in 'The Lion King' Remake Look Real at the Expense of the Movie's Soul

lion king
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

There's a remarkable reinvention of the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King in theaters around the world that everyone should see, if given the chance. It’s the Julie Taymor directed stage production that debuted in 1997, and sadly, not the Jon Favreau remake launching globally July 19. 

The familiar pieces are all there in Favreau's new big screen adaptation, the latest Disney remake of their classic titles. The story, a clever riff on Hamlet, remains untouched; the characters sing Elton John and Tim Rice's catchy songs; Hans Zimmer and Lebo M.'s gorgeous score punctuates every scene; the new cast is stacked with the likes of Beyoncé and Donald Glover; and even James Earl Jones is back to voice Mufasa, since no one else could hope to match his booming fatherly intonations. And yet, it's all stifled by the VFX meant to bring the big cat characters closer to their real-life counterparts, but ultimately renders them lifeless. It's a trip into the uncanny valley, where a brighter, bolder nostalgia gnaws like a hungry hyena at your heels.

lion king
Walt Disney Pictures

Unlike the recent Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, this is not a live-action remake. A more apt term would be a CG remake that gives the illusion of being "live action" thanks to expensive digital wizardry. And, sure, the technical work is astonishing on some level. These do look like actual lions, rippling musculature and all. Pumbaa, the farting comic relief, also has the visage of an actual warthog, a highly unnerving sight. Some shots seem like they could have been taken from an episode of Planet Earth, which was apparently Favreau's intention. But what's onscreen is not real enough to elicit true wonder, nor inventive enough to justify a realm of fantasy where, you know, lions would be talking and singing. (It's truly odd to watch these balls of pixels open their mouths to hold a note.) Thus the animation, while impressive, also dulls both the senses and the story. 

Favreau has basically made a shot-for-shot remake that's inexplicably a half an hour longer than the 1994 original. Dare I rehash the plot? Is it even necessary? Simba (JD McCrary) is a young lion prince who suffers unimaginable tragedy when his scheming, power-hungry uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) murders his father Mufasa (Jones). Thinking he's responsible for his dad's death, Simba leaves his homeland, befriends a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and grows up, maturing into Glover's voice. Eventually his love interest Nala (Beyoncé!!!!!!) finds him, they fall in love, and she urges him to come back home and take his rightful place on the throne. 

While the plot and even much of the dialogue remain static -- minus a "Mr. Pig" and Taxi Driver reference -- there's an absence of playfulness in a misguided effort to be true to nature. Remember in the 1994 "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," Simba pounces and the song becomes a Busby Berkeley dance with clashing colors and zebras? Here, the cubs just trot around, meeting up with some other baby animals. "Be Prepared," once sung by a mischievous villain in his cavern filled with an army of hyena cronies and oozing green slime, is now a couple of lines spoken in the dark by Ejiofor's one-note bad guy, for whom doing evil seems to be a chore. 

That's what a warthog looks like. Happy now? | Walt Disney Pictures

Although Ejiofor's choice to underplay Scar seems like a strange choice, it's hard to fault any of the actors. Their voice performances barely register behind the expressionless faces of the computer generated animals. The reigning queen of all music lends a powerful gravitas to her Nala and the team of Eichner and Rogen conjure up some genuine laughs with their banter, but the visuals are so thickly lacking in emotion that it feels like everyone is being forced to act behind multiple panes of glass. At least there's some energy to the singing: Even after I've long forgotten about this movie, I'll be listening to the runs Beyoncé does on "Can You Feel The Love Tonight." (While Knowles-Carter's new track "Spirit" plays over a transitional moment in the narrative, Nala is not given significantly more to do in this adaptation, nor a number to really call her own. Whither "Shadowland"?) 

As I watched an afternoon screening of the remake, growing wearier with every lazy choice, my mind wandered to exquisitely painted backdrops of the 2D animation and the thrilling puppetry of the theatrical production. Remakes aren't inherently creatively bankrupt; you only need to look to this property's Broadway legacy to know that. This story, in its earlier forms, taught me about suspension of disbelief and the notion that art didn't necessarily have to be literal to be beautiful. An elephant could suddenly turn red for the purposes of a musical sequence; performers in ornate headdresses could be lionesses hunting their prey. The 2019 Lion King aims for truth in the most obvious sense, but loses vitality along the way. Like an elephant graveyard, the bones of something special are there, but it's mostly a barren wasteland.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.