‘The Lion King’ Review: Disney’s Circle of Lifelessness

As Disney’s remake of “The Lion King” begins, an enormous orange sun rises on an Africa so realistic—so brilliantly and persuasively photorealistic—that you half-expect to hear a narration by David Attenborough. This is no nature documentary, though. It’s cutting-edge animation minus inspiration, a leaden, literal-minded rendition of the 1994 classic with computer-generated images that simulate live action and a narrative structure that frequently follows the original shot for shot. (Once again it’s “Hamlet” on the veld as Simba, a young lion cub, flees his kingdom after the murder of his father, Mufasa.) The Elton John score has also been recycled, but I found myself thinking of Paul Simon’s song “So Beautiful or So What.” Change the conjunction and it’s an apt description of the film—so beautiful and so what.

From a technical point of view the production is a marvel, and for better or, more likely, worse, it’s the harbinger of a filmmaking future in which actors may be as dispensable as sets, locations and cameras. Yet “The Lion King” redux doesn’t feel marvelous, let alone like a magical creation from the Magic Kingdom. The beauty of the landscapes fills the eye without stirring the soul. The action sequences are impressive, in their thunderously brutal way, but the pace is often ponderous, the tone is predominantly dark, and there’s a fundamental disjunction between the characters’ physicality and what we hear of their inner lives. With a couple of exceptions, plus some comic counterpoint, the voice performances range from unremarkable to downright dull, though not for lack of high-powered talent in the major roles.

The most conspicuous exception is Pumbaa, the warthog voiced by Seth Rogen. Pumbaa is only a second banana in the jungle’s scheme of things, an outcast who, with his meerkat buddy Timon (counterpoint provided by Billy Eichner), rescues the young Simba from certain death in the desert. But Mr. Rogen plays him joyously, lustily, with gleeful gargles and exuberant chortles that add up to a star turn, as well as a reminder of the wonderfully eccentric characterizations that were once a Disney trademark. (The other exception is James Earl Jones, who, happily and ever so resonantly, returns after 25 years as the doomed monarch Mufasa.)

Voices matter crucially in this movie, which was directed by Jon Favreau, since its visual style has rendered the characters’ faces almost immobile. (All the digital wizardry in the world couldn’t justify a smile, or a sneer, on the lips of a photorealistic lion.) Yet conflicting imperatives have taken their toll on the casting.

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