Disney’s reboot of its much-loved 1994 animation is a plausibly real retelling of the story of prince Simba and his struggle against wicked uncle Scar
After 25 years, during which it gained classic status as the last Disney picture in the old style that Walt himself would have endorsed and enjoyed a long afterlife in theatres all over the world with Julie Taymor’s staging and costumes, the 1994 animation The Lion King has been remade as a quasi-live-action digital movie. This is an anthro-leonine deepfake of impressive proportions, but the new Lion King gains in shock and awe while losing in character and wit. These are walking, talking animals that are realer than real and whose facial/speech patterns are eerily plausible – way past the unsatisfying oddities of Babe the pig from long ago, with moving mouths pasted on animal faces.
Here once again is the story of the lion prince Simba (voiced by Donald Glover) who as a tiny cub is “presented” to his subjects in the ceremony on the phallic Pride Rock by his parents King Mufasa (in which vocal role James Earl Jones is a survivor of the original film) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). But wicked Uncle Scar (did he have a real name before the nickname?) nurses evil designs on poor little Simba. Here the role originally played by Jeremy Irons has been given to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is capably insinuating, but does not relish the evilness of the part in the same outrageous and enjoyable way Irons did. An evil plot and a tragedy mean Simba grows up in exile, where he must one day confront his destiny, helped by the young lioness he loves: Nala, voiced by Beyoncé.
This is a virtual shot-for-shot reproduction of the original, and some credulous souls have been excitably posting side-by-side images on social media, showing the cartoon and its digital duplication. Have these people grasped that this is just an animation as well, and that director Jon Favreau has not in fact trained real animals to imitate scenes from the 1994 film? Maybe not.
In some ways, I can’t blame them. This is very smooth work, adding half an hour to the original running time simply by unobtrusively plumping up each narrative part, although we get more of the backstory of Mufasa, Sarabi and Scar. We lose the quirkily eccentric Morning Report song from the pompous courtier-bird Zazu (originally Rowan Atkinson, now John Oliver) but Beyoncé’s Nala has a new song: Spirit.
But we have also lost a couple of well-loved things from the first film: the diversionary “big pig” song from Pumbaa and Timon (voiced by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner) has been junked and when grownup Simba and Nala sing their Can You Feel the Love Tonight? love song, Nala doesn’t do her startlingly sultry come-hither expression from the first film: perhaps the only purely erotic moment in the Disney canon.
The new Lion King has been modernised in the sense of having more African and African-descended voice artists, and John Kani brings a lovely vocal lightness to the priestly role of Rafiki. Yet the new Lion King boldly keeps that famous stretch of dialogue from the first film in which the hunter/meat-eater is presented as morally equivalent to the herbivore. Mufasa tells young Simba about all creatures being respected in a delicate balance, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope. “But dad, don’t we eat the antelope?” asks Simba, and Mufasa replies sonorously: “Yes … but when we die, our bodies become the grass, and antelopes eat the grass.” I always expect Simba to reply: “Erm, yeah, dad, but there’s a difference between dying of old age and getting killed and eaten in a state of terrified pain.” Simba embraces a kind of veganism in exile – but it’s the kind of immature practice that he will have to put behind him if he is to reclaim his crown.
Basically, this new Lion King sticks very closely to the original version, and in that sense it’s of course watchable and enjoyable. But I missed the simplicity and vividness of the original hand-drawn images. The circle of commercial life has given birth to this all-but-indistinguishable digiclone descendant. I don’t quite feel like bowing, but respect has to be paid to a handsomely made piece of entertainment.