Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King, using photo-realistic computer animation techniques, is stunning. It is stunning to look at. The Serengeti looks real, as detailed and gorgeous as the best nature documentary. The animals are stunning, as tangible as any creature in a National Geographic photograph. And it is simply stunning how genuinely awful The Lion King is, how listless and lacking in charisma and utterly soulless it is. That photo-real animation, as whizbang fantastic as it is from a technical standpoint, devastates the emotional core of The Lion King, rendering the animals totally expressionless. It’s impossible to tell animals from the same group apart—all the hyenas look the same, all the lions look the same—so that it is a relief when Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shows up, with his mangy mane and obviously scarred coat. Finally! Some differentiation to distinguish characters! The Lion King is a trip to process, simultaneously a technical marvel and an expressionless horror.
It is the exact same story as the 1994 movie, just half an hour longer. I thought that extra thirty minutes would come in the form of expanded storytelling, perhaps fleshing out Nala (Beyoncé Knowles Carter), but no. There are some minor additions to scenes with Nala and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), but most of that extra runtime comes from long, drawn out transitions and more riffing from Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). The voice actors are trying, and to be fair, the songs are still great, but the actual acting part of “voice acting” is rendered completely impossible by the animation. It does not matter what the actor is putting into their vocal performance in any given moment, their character is always wearing the same goddamn expression.
There is NO EXPRESSION in The Lion King. It’s actually heartbreaking, because I remember with crystal clarity the terror and helplessness on little Simba’s face when he sees Mufasa fall, and later the joy he expresses when he reunites with Nala. This time? Simba looks exactly the same, whether he’s telling off Zazu (John Oliver), mourning Mufasa, or frolicking with Nala. It doesn’t matter what Donald Glover is doing as Simba’s voice, because the Simba we see is just making his one lion face the whole time. There is a disconnect between what the characters are saying and what they are doing which is completely disorienting to watch. Thank god for Hans Zimmer’s timeless score, which rescues many emotional moments and at least gives us something to hitch our hearts to because the characters aren’t cutting it.
The photorealism of The Lion King, as good as it looks, turns out to be its downfall. The story totally holds up—The Lion King 1994 is a classic for a reason—but here it is rendered stiffly, even awkwardly. This new Lion King exists in a temporal warp, it’s longer than the original and yet it feels rushed. And no matter how good the story is, the way it is told here just does not work. The photoreal approach is a bad idea executed very well, and as impressive as the technology is as a tool, it is awful as artistry.
But the songs totally hold up. The great music and nostalgia for the original will carry The Lion King for a lot of people, but to see the colorful and individual characters of the original cartoon rendered so expressionlessly just made me sad. Also, and I know this is weird coming from me, but I miss the musical numbers. The songs are present, but because the animals are totally realistic, there is no staging to the performance of the music. The most the animals can do is pace back and forth or jump around. There are no goose-stepping hyenas—which takes the fascistic bent of “Be Prepared” right out—or “dancing” Timon and Pumbaa. Rogen and Eichner come out the best of the vocal cast mainly because Timon and Pumbaa have all the jokes, but “Hakuna Matata” is as weird as anything else in The Lion King because they’re singing this joyful song with zero expression on their faces. It’s like an entire movie performed by Teddy Ruxpin.
I know many of you will disagree with me and love the new Lion King. The music holds up and the story is still good, even with the weird pacing issues introduced by the extended run time. And the photo-real animation is eye-popping, at least until the characters start trying to emote. As a filmmaking tool, this style of animation could be very useful, particularly as a means of replacing live animals on set—there is no need to potentially endanger real animals now that we can flawlessly recreate them with computers. But as a storytelling technique, it does not work, not when there is this level of rigid adherence to photo-realism. It is not effective storytelling when your characters are incapable of expression. Watching this version of The Lion King is like going to the zoo and staring at a lion while listening to “The Circle of Life”. Disney should have just given Beyoncé $300 million to make her concept album and released that into theaters.