Is anyone actually this nostalgic? Beneath the song and dance and snappy dialogue in the new Lion King is a feeling of resignation and inevitability. This reenactment—remake would imply that something is different from the beloved 1994 animated film—fails to explain to puzzled audiences why it exists at all. It’s not live action like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a subversion like Maleficent. This is the same movie with the same songs, only with photorealistic animation where the lions are bound by real physics. The result is even less immersive. It turns out that real lions pacing back and forth uneventfully isn’t as much fun as show-stopping musical numbers. Who knew?
That said, The Lion King might not be a miserable experience for those who are fond of the source material. It has the songs you love, performed by capable voices (Donald Glover, Beyoncé, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Eric Andre, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen). It has exactly the same jokes, only this time Puumba actually says “farted” instead of getting cut off. The technology is impressive, even if it is strange to hear Beyoncé’s commanding voice from a totally indifferent-looking cat.
Imagine you’re at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. They close with “Freebird.” Then, for the encore, they play it again right away, but this time with the house lights totally on. It’s still “Freebird,” just way too soon and with a less compelling presentation. That’s what it’s like watching this movie. The title may as well have been The Lion King: Again.
Director Jon Favreau has been at the cutting edge of incorporating realistic computer animation with the intent of making fantastical plot points feel totally natural in the world of the film, from Tony Stark’s CG suit in Iron Man to Mowgli’s interactions with animals of all types in The Jungle Book. The effect worked beautifully in those films: the wholly impractical suit looks perfect, and Mowgli’s companions not only look great, but carry all of the emotional weight of genuine characters. In The Lion King, Favreau pushes the limits of what we’ll believe so far that the audience forgets that there were limits in the first place. But, if a live-ish Lion King remake was inevitable, we probably should be grateful it was Favreau behind the camera, a filmmaker who cares about the balance between technique and engagement. It could have been worse.
The last thing in the world a Disney film needs is realism. Even the recent live-action remakes rely on magic and wonder to carry the plot. That’s why people see these movies. The advances in animation technology are impressive (bordering on scary), but making a Shakespearean power struggle look like an episode of “Planet Earth” is not an improvement. Everything else is either exactly as good or slightly worse. What is this, other than a way of testing new tech? Who is this for? Why?
The Lion King / PG, 118 minutes /Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, Check theater websites for listings.
See it again
Mary Poppins / G, 180 minutes / The Paramount Theater / July 28