Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews "The Lion King"

Jul 12, 2019

The remake of "The Lion King" is expected to be a huge success at the box office
Credit Harlan Jacobson / WBGO

On the list of things that must be done over to get right, surely a remake of The Lion King is somewhere down near the bottom. Disney’s 1994 original animated version made about a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. 

So, why is there a remake?

To make a lot of money again, that’s why. 

The new version is directed by Jon Favreau of the Iron Man franchise and Jungle Book remake by Disney three years ago. It’s part of the new era Disney playbook of remaking rather than re-releasing. As if the 1997 stage version hadn’t thrown off billions on Broadway and worldwide, this film reboot is headed to hitsville but achieving nothing particularly new for all its techno-roaring. Old Disney used to open the vault and re-release one of their classic animated films into theatres and later as videotapes, every 7 years to catch the next wave of kids. Could Disney have simply re-released the ‘94 Lion King? Of course, it’s animated, its shelf life is longer than film; animation makes it more imaginative, less realistic. There was a tidy business in the vault strategy, but not a billion dollars. 

The lovable and interesting characters in Disney's 1994 version of "The Lion King"
Credit Disney

  The original Lion King was Disney’s first original story for an animated feature rather than adaption. It showed: some 27 people were given writing credits including the three principals. And while its genesis was hand animation, it made great use of computer-generated animation in sequences involving stampeding wildebeests and moving zebras. The new script, which completely tracks the work by the original 4 principals (screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton of Brenda Chapman’s story), is solely by Jeff Nathanson --who having written scripts for Catch Me if You Can, the Rush Hour movies, and Speed2 – duplicated the original film practically sequence by sequence but plus 30 minutes. Go figure. 

The key difference is on the surface: it shows how deeply into the fabric over the last 25 years what you see onscreen is now computerized technology. Animation—cartoon, as we understood it -- has given way to a CGI process that replicates virtual cinematography, supervised here by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel, as the film literally drops you onto the veld in Africa -– albeit a Disney version — with live animals whose lips move in perfectly synchronicity to the English they speak. They run, jump, hop, fly, crawl, climb, and stampede with realistic bravado. This is both a stunning and hypnotic achievement -- as the remarkably genteel animal world scoots through National Geographic landscapes – and a brain breaker: We try to use our imagination while the almost real virtual cinematography whispers to us, don’t bother, this is all real. Which is it? Real? Not Real? If nestled inside the innocence of The Lion King is a lesson in political leadership for the kids, the adults in the room may understand what they’re really watching is a hymn to cash being the true king. It’s a Disney, world, folks, and you only live in it. 

Disney's "The Lion King" use the voices of some of the biggest names in the biz like James Earl Jones and Beyonce
Credit Harlan Jacobson / WBGO

  This Lion King is nonetheless clever in its characters, who are designed as Shakespearean: Father Hero, Uncle Villain, Reprobate Son, followed by Noble Wife and Catalyst Girlfriend –the most delicate parts to write since, times being what they are, the assumption of patriarchy and the requirement of combat aren’t going to take time out for Disney’ lunge at the money. Good thing there’s a pair of comic relief sidekicks and a nervous bird. 

James Earl Jones is back, at 88, as Mufasa, the Lion King set up and murdered by his decidedly rattier looking and Machiavellian brother, Scar, seductively voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor replacing the decidedly cattier, Jeremy Irons. Donald Glover (no relation to Danny) voices Simba, the lion cub who must summon the courage of his father, hovering up there in the stars, to return and oust the usurper Scar. 

Simba’s former female playmate, now a comely lioness, Nala, silkily-voiced by Beyonce, finds the exiled cub all grown up and having a perfectly fine time goofing off eating grubs in a cul de sac with his comic friends, Pumbaa, the cowardly warthog voiced in frightened fratboy style by Seth Rogen, who seems not to be acting, and the weasely meerkat, Timon, given a funny, vaguely impatient foot-tapping voice by Billy Eichner. It’s here where the script seems to have added dialogue, and trutly to comic relief. Trying everything she can think of to rouse Simba, Beyonce-Nala finds the right button to push: What about your Mother?, voiced so briefly by Alfre Woodard it’s possible to see why she might have slipped his mind. The technology is so relentlessly insistent on being the star in the reboot, Zazu, the jittery hornbill, gets read as John Oliver tricked up as a bird. Oh that’s Beyonce as a girl cat. That, as Generation Z might say, is a brain fart just when you want to forget who they all are. 

Untouched are Hanz Zimmer’s score and the songs you love by Elton John and Tim Rice – I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, the opener Circle of Life, and on through Can You Feel the Love Tonight and Hakuna Matata. The music can cheer up kids of any age still. When the original was released, critics warned parents that the film could prove too scary for kids. In the age of Active Shooter Drills, I wonder if stampeding wildebeest still have the power to terrify the tots? 

The Lion King narrative is by happenstance more current in 2019 than in 1994, when the story seemed like a familiar cinema convention without much reference to realpolitik. Now say the story out loud to yourself: The pridelands have been taken over by a coup and their natural wealth stripped bare. They are ruled by a dictator whose terror is enforced by jackals. Kids, you must make the pridelands great again. It’s a narrative that feeds everyone’s political fantasy life when it’s their turn in the wilderness: “We are the true heirs and rightful rulers. Our vision is pure. We are in exile. Only we can restore the kingdom to its pure state.” That is the dominant political narrative of the last 40 years, reflected back to us in our film culture ever since the Rebel Alliance started its long journey back in Star Wars to destroy the Empire. 

Aside from its $20 buck armchair trip to Disney’s theme park Africa, The Lion King is successful perhaps because of what it has always said to those cute young cubs you brought to multiplexes worldwide to experience a simultaneous generational moment: Grow up, kids. Hakuna Matata –- the Lion King version of the late Mad Magazine’s What Me Worry – turns out can only take you so far. Then… it’s war.