Run time: 1 hour 58 minutes
Stars: James Earl Jones, Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver
Director: Jon Favreau
Because many grownups will likely go see The Lion King with youngsters, let's start with the opinions of the kids I took to see it: Carlos, 12, and Sai, 8. Because, really, not everything is about us.
The boys loved it. Yes, more so than the animated original about a lion cub who would be king, which roared into pop culture consciousness in 1994 and never shut up. The Lion King is the most profitable entertainment property in history, grossing $8.1 billion — very nearly as much as all the Star Wars films put together, Forbes calculated in 2017. The boys have only seen that classic on a small screen, and neither have attended Julie Taymor's groundbreaking Broadway musical. Their expectations were tempered.
It's ours that are set high by the original: by its Tony-winning stage incarnation, by the promising casting of Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter in the new version, and most of all by a nostalgia hard to beat or even meet.
But at the risk of sounding “get off my lawn"-ish, for grownups, this revisit, written by Jeff Nathanson, has little to recommend over the original. Director Jon Favreau lands between two movies styles Disney rightly claims as part of its legacy: nature documentaries and animated flicks. But it's a betwixt space that teases realism to at times confusing ends and forgoes any attempts at fresh myth-making. Hakuna matata? It's more, like, Hakuna ... whatever.
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It's true that this hybrid — of visual effects, live-action and computer-generated images — offers some dazzling moments. Some allow us to see things from otherwise impossible vantages: An early scene finds leonine patriarch Mufasa's cocky son, Simba, and Nala, his best pal and future love interest, racing through the legs of giraffe and the tall grasses of the savanna. Bring on the rollicking Cub Cam!And other things mesmerize: young Simba's beseeching eyes, warthog Pumbaa's sparse hair, the leaping and bowing of the various herds when Mufasa (a still majestic James Earl Jones, 88) lifts high the wee heir on Pride Rock.
JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph bring a pleasing mix of sweetness, boast and brattiness to their roles as young Simba and Nala. As Scar, Mufasa's brother and assassin, Chiwetel Ejiofor hits dastardly yet languid notes. Talk-show host John Oliver takes flight as Mufasa's yakking confidant Zazu.
But voice casting for animation is a fine art for which hiring for maximum box-office appeal doesn't always help. This sounds like sacrilege, but Beyoncé's Nala isn't perfect. Talented Donald Glover's Simba is even less indelible. Their duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” doesn't fall flat, exactly. Like the rest of their voice work, it just doesn't go deep.
The most memorable animated characters are voiced by actors who embody the emotional expansiveness implied by “animated.” It's hardly a surprise, then, that Seth Rogen has made Pumbaa his own. Rogen and Billy Eichner, as his “smarter” buddy Timon, remain amusing, even touching. For dark-side comic relief, nattering hyenas Azizi (Eric André) and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) provide several laughs.
For grownups — as opposed to the happy cubs who will adore them for taking them to The Lion King — this remake doesn't feel like visionary storytelling so much as a proving ground for newer technologies: virtual reality (VR) and other immersive techniques. It puts tech before tale. We can think of millions of reasons — or 8.1 billion — why. But to paraphrase Sir Elton John's and Tim Rice's Oscar- and Grammy-winning song: Uh, no — I can't quite feel the love.