Unfolding like the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake, Jon Favreau’s (almost) photorealistic remake of “The Lion King” is meant to represent the next step in Disney’s circle of life. Instead, this soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.
With the possible exception of 2015’s “Cinderella,” which was touched with just enough magic to feel like a new wrinkle on an old fairy tale, all of Disney’s live-action rehashes have been faint echoes of their animated predecessors. But “The Lion King” isn’t an echo, it’s a stain. This zombified digital clone of the studio’s first original cartoon feature is the Disney equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho.”
Unlike the rest of the Disney’s latest rehashes, “The Lion King” isn’t live-action: Favreau, who previously inched towards this same technological asymptote with his playful update of “The Jungle Book” in 2016, has made a fully animated film working overtime to disguise itself as an episode of “Planet Earth.”
Sometimes, the graphics look so good that your brain struggles to make sense of why they don’t look better (Pride Rock, we learn, is located deep inside the uncanny valley). Other times, the animals are constrained by the boundaries of verisimilitude; forget the original’s Busby Berkeley-like choreography of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” or the unbridled expressionism of “Hakuna Matata,” because all these hyper-realistic animals can do is walk around their drab environments and fall over each other. (Don’t ask how Zazu the hornbill can speak the Queen’s English even though his beak only moves up and down.)
Most often, the animation is just bland in a way that saps the characters of their personalities. Scar used to be a Shakespearian villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he’s just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor. Simba used to be a sleek upstart whose regal heritage was tempered by youthful insecurity; now he’s just a lion who sounds like Donald Glover. Watching them come to blows against a realistic-but-dull background suggests that Favreau was so busy trying to figure out if he could, that he never stopped to consider if he should.
On a conceptual level, “The Lion King” betrays the power of the hand-drawn artwork that once put the wonder into Disney animation from its earliest features. Favreau’s movie fails to grapple with how the unreality of the studio’s lush 2D artwork unlocked kids’ imagination and made it so much fun to suspend disbelief; the digital wizardry denies our minds the permission they need to dream. Julie Taymor’s award-winning Broadway adaptation is so transportive because it celebrates its artifice, not in spite of it. Favreau has likened the process of making this film to restoring an architectural landmark, but at the end of the day, he’s merely gentrified it.
On an executional level, “The Lion King” manages to triple underline all of the basic problems with its big idea. The film is almost a scene-for-scene remake of the 1994 original, which means that it opens with its best and most awe-inspiring sequence. “The Circle of Life” is still an absolute banger, and the spectacle of it all hints at what Favreau was hoping to accomplish. This is a movie that works best in wide shots, when you can almost pretend it’s real.
And then the animals start to talk. At first, it looks as if the lions are telepathic, and then they seem so badly dubbed that you wish they had been. The more adorable characters are easier to believe, as their cuteness allows for an extra dash of anthropomorphized fun, but the vocal performances aren’t equipped to carry the emotional weight that the hand-drawn animation once expressed on its own.
Eleven-year-old JD McCrary, who voices the young Simba, has a beautiful singing voice that saves “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” from the pure tedium of watching two lion cubs walk against a desolate background, but his puffed up take on the lion cub turns the precocious cub into an entitled little hairball; the character is deeply annoying, and you just can’t wait for him to grow the hell up.
Beyond that, the casting is solid, even if the actors themselves are underused. Alfre Woodward is barely given a chance to register as the voice of Simba’s mother, Sarabi, which is all the more apparent when the mighty James Earl Jones shows up to reprise his iconic role as Mufasa — every line still feels like a heavenly roar. John Oliver was born to play an anxious hornbill, while Ejiofor is a fine Scar, though his reluctance to sing cuts the character off at the knees.
Or maybe the problem with Scar, whose army of hyenas is embossed with a light gloss of #MAGA deplorability, is a bit more abstract: He represents a predatory new power who doesn’t respect tradition, prefers quick profits over long-term sustainability, and desecrates the delicate balance of life that has preserved the pride (and something proud about it) for generations. Scar is the villain of this story, but Favreau doesn’t seem to realize whose side his film is on.
The other supporting characters are a mixed bag, though Simba’s eventual sidekicks are once again the life of the party. Seth Rogen’s carefree chortle and natural flair for self-deprecation make him the best possible Pumbaa, while Billy Eichner reveals his Broadway-worthy talents as the newly theatrical Timon. Favreau can’t find a way to enliven their should-be-showstopping “Hakuna Matata” — like most of the film, the scene is cold and isolated where the original is warm and in ecstatic creative harmony with the world around it — but the actors’ chemistry still manages to produce a spark.
And whether ad-libbed or written into Jeff Nathanson’s otherwise unadventurous script, the new dialogue between Timon and Pumbaa is the film’s only welcome new addition. That includes the forgettable Elton John ditty that plays over the closing credits, and the well-produced Beyoncé C-side squeezed into the third act to pad out the movie’s running time. Beyoncé also plays the role of adult Nala, Simba’s partner in the pride, but not even she can rescue a three-dimensional creature from five or six lines of generic dialogue. (Glover is similarly underserved as adult Simba, but he does a brilliant job of finding the music in every line and giving his character the pulse that the film’s harried plotting denies him.)
The disparity between the size of Beyoncé’s role and the near-mythic recognizability of her speaking voice epitomizes a film in which even the most important cast members have been reduced to mere signifiers of the parts they inhabit. Nala is nothing more than a call-back to a character we all remember, and that’s even more true of the wise mandrill Rafiki (a perfectly cast John Kani), who’s sidelined until the end, when he gets to relive Yoda’s big moment from “Attack of the Clones” with a concise ass-kicking showdown.
In the end, Rafiki only reinforces the feeling that a photo-realistic approach makes your brain question the film’s premise. “The Lion King” demands that we suspend our disbelief at the same time that it tries to convince us that we don’t have to, and the resulting dissonance is so draining that it becomes hard to remember how special this story once felt.
Zazu worries that the circle of life has become “a meaningless line of indifference,” but “The Lion King” more closely resembles a perfect ouroboros. It’s the work of a studio that’s gobbled up the rest of the film industry and is still hungry for more. “The Lion King” feels less like a remake than a snuff film, and a boring one at that.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures will release “The Lion King” in theaters on July 19.