“Why is that water buffalo singing?” is a question that I never asked myself during the 1994 movie “The Lion King” but that I couldn’t stop asking during the new remake/rehash/regurgitation.
Here’s why: The original’s hand-drawn animation was at an abstract remove from what actual animals look and behave like, so it was lovely whenever it captured something true about a bird in flight or the herky-jerky movement of meerkats. The remake’s animation, on the other hand, is nearly photorealistic, so it falls into an uncanny valley (uncanny savanna?): Yes, the animals look legit, but what’s the point? Why animate animals to look real instead of using, you know, real animals?
If we want a movie about the fauna of Africa, a million nonfiction shows give us that. And if we want to see giraffes tap-dance, that only works if the giraffes don’t look like actual giraffes. Especially since “The Lion King” has never been about animal behavior, but about human behavior as attributed to animals: When Simba squirms while mother Sarabi grooms him, we’re meant to recognize the wriggling of a human child, not an animal child.
“What’s the point?” is the key question here. The stunning landscapes are one area in which the remake bests the original (along with more inclusive casting, with Donald Glover as Simba and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala replacing Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly).
When it’s not re-creating the original — “The Circle of Life” follows it almost shot-for-shot and lion cub Simba still transforms from a child to a young man during the song “Hakuna Matata” — it is making choices that remind us of the original, a “Hamlet”-esque story in which Simba grapples with his destiny to lead his people after his uncle, Scar, murders his father, Mufasa, and pins the blame on Simba.
The story still works, although, maybe because it’s so familiar, it doesn’t land with the impact it did 25 years ago. Perhaps the biggest divergence is in the musical numbers, which were highly stylized, Ziegfeld Follies-esque extravaganzas in 1994, complete with huge turntables and hundreds of chorines. That wouldn’t cut it on the uncanny savanna, so director Jon Favreau — who also did 2016’s photorealistic “Jungle Book” redo — replaces the dance numbers with naturalistic (i.e., dull) movement and the rich hues of the original with browns and olive greens.
And, although the remake tries to parse it, the story’s confusing notion of who eats whom seems even weirder now that the animals look real, not cartoonish (the more Simba resembles a lion, the more likely it seems that he’d eat his sidekicks, not befriend them).
Aware that its all-star cast has a tough act to follow, the remake smartly brings back the unimprovable James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa. Knowles-Carter (she uses her full name in the credits) is given a bit more to do, but Nala remains a sidekick role at best, and her new song, “Spirit,” is a drag. As Pumbaa and Timon, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are knockoffs of the original’s comic duo of Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane, except Rogen can’t sing.
The message of “The Lion King” feels more urgent now than it did 25 years ago, given climate crisis and Mufasa’s hopeful insistence that “a true king searches for what he can give,” not take. And a case can be made that the 2019 “Lion King” will introduce new viewers to this classic story, but why introduce them with an inferior version, especially since the original remains widely available?
So, again, as Disney’s remake/reboot culture draws the studio closer and closer to being a cinematic ouroboros, eating its own tail: What’s the point? Even if it were good, the best this movie could have hoped for was to be an imitation of something that was already perfect to begin with.