Unless you’re 99, and maybe even then, your first big-screen moviegoing experience was likely a Disney movie. Disney productions—whether we’re talking about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) or that juggernaut of tiny-tot empowerment, the 2013 Frozen—have long been considered safe, wholesome choices for kids, pictures that parents can feel they don’t need to vet in advance. But movies, seen big, can creep into your soul, and you have every right to be choosy about what you let in—and about what you let into your children’s lives. When you’re a big person, a movie seen in a theater is literally larger than life; when you’re a little person, it can be like a new portal opening in the universe, overwhelming in the best way, or possibly the worst. How you feel about Jon Favreau’s new, semi-live-action photorealistic interpretation of The Lion King will depend largely on how you feel about the original, 1994 animated version. Both made me miserable.
This new Lion King is the latest in Disney’s string of remakes of its own animated films, designed at least in part to stoke the nostalgia of baby boomers, gen X-ers and millennials—and also, of course, to make lots of money. Some of these remakes, like Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella and Bill Condon’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast, are inventive and enjoyable; others, like Tim Burton’s garish Dumbo, released earlier this year, have misfired. Many of these remakes have been live-action films, albeit heavily CGI-enhanced ones, but Favreau’s Lion King kicks up the technology several notches: The techniques used here are totally 21st century, a blend of live-action filmmaking techniques, virtual-reality effects and computer-generated imagery. This Lion King certainly took a lot of effort to make, and every bead of sweat shows. The lions and other animals sport highly realistic fur and feathers; their mouths move and words spill out, in a manner that’s either wonderful or silly depending on your tolerance for hyperrealistic creatures’ spouting lessons about the circle of life and other oversimplified nuggets of food-chain wisdom.
But the story, even with a gently updated script by Jeff Nathanson, is essentially the same. And especially in the way it plucks with such calculation at tender childhood fears of abandonment, this new Lion King is virtually identical to its predecessor. Both of these movies feel left over from the world of Victorian children’s books, which often took great pains to illustrate for the little ones just how hard and grim life could be—orphaned children freezing on door stoops and the like. This type of literature is supposed to be “improving.” Do we need to be traumatized in order to be improved?
In the 1994 film, directed by Roger Allers and Bob Minkoff, winsome cub Simba (voiced, in his later adult guise, by Matthew Broderick) sees his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the King of Pride Rock, killed by Mufasa’s own brother, the twisted, ambitious schemer Scar (Jeremy Irons). In what is largely considered the movie’s most deeply emotional scene, tiny Simba nudges his father’s corpse in an attempt to awaken him. Disney movies are notorious for zeroing in on children’s worst fears, chief among them the loss of a parent—the 1942 Bambi is a prime example, though that picture, at least, is based on a beautiful and sensitive book by the Austrian writer Felix Salten. (It, along with Salten’s other books, was banned by Hitler, so you know it’s got something going for it.) But the old Lion King, with its terrifying stampede-and-murder sequence, its clumsy tonal shifts and its muddled philosophy about life (are we supposed to worry about nothing, ever, for the rest of our days? Or take responsibility for everything?) was far more shameless than Bambi, particularly in its treatment of parental death. And while the new Lion King is slightly easier to take—maybe because these heavily CGI-enhanced “real” lions don’t have the same cartoon humanity of the earlier version’s animated ones—the picture still has a manufactured, preachy sheen. This is calculated virtuousness masquerading as imagination, though it’s easy to be sidetracked by how adorable the cub Simba is.
As the movie opens, we see this newborn lion prince, a blinky golden bundle, being presented to the denizens of Pride Rock by the wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani). Noble, muscular papa Mufasa (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) and lithe, wise mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) look on adoringly. With the help of Mufasa’s loyal birdservant Zazu (John Oliver), little Simba is to be educated in all manner of leadership. Someday he’ll take over his father’s throne, and, as he crows in a song, he can’t wait to be king, failing to understand just how heavy that crown will be.
But Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mangy beast with a bumpy spine and little more than an alopecia fringe for a mane, has a Shakespearean plan for grabbing the kingdom of Pride Rock for himself. It involves large numbers of evil, leering hyenas (their three leaders are voiced by Florence Kasumba, Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key), an artificially instigated stampede of beasts, and, of course, unadulterated murder. The execution of this dastardly plot, as the movie presents it in CGI-heavy hyperreality, is harrowing and assaultive. Simba survives but, heartbroken over the loss of his father, he slinks off into the desert, hoping for death.
But don’t worry, kiddos! There’s a cheery song coming up, perhaps the most famous of all the numbers written and composed for the original movie by Elton John and Tim Rice, “Hakuna Matata”—that means “no worries for the rest of your days.” Simba is brainwashed into this mode of thinking by the movie’s stoner-equivalent characters, warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). Life is good—great, in fact—if you just empty your brain. Simba grows up by numbing out. As an adult, he’s voiced by Donald Glover, and Nala, the now-grown childhood lion friend who locates him and persuades him to return to Pride Rock is voiced by Beyoncé. She sounds like she means business.
While it’s true that Simba does return to a world of responsibility, the irrefutable catchiness of “Hakuna Matata” suggests that The Lion King wants it both ways. The movie never fully turns against the song’s zoned-out tie-dyed philosophy. And it’s just one example of the story’s jagged, blithe tonal shifts: little Simba gets over his father’s death mighty fast once that song gets lodged in his head.
Favreau is a smart director—his 2016 Jungle Book, another Disney remake, had spirit and verve—and he might have been able to tweak some of the first Lion King’s clumsy emotional transitions. But that’s perhaps even beyond his powers. And the original Lion King is so beloved by so many—the thinking must have been, Better not to mess with it too much. In that respect, this Lion King is a faithful remake, and in terms of its technology, it’s at times quite beautiful to behold. Giraffes run hither and thither on spotty, spindly legs; zebra herds dash by, a stripey blur. But there’s no sense of wonder in this new Lion King—its most visible attribute is ambition. It works hard for the money. Chiefly, yours.