After achieving critical and commercial success with 2016’s The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau once again returns to the director’s chair to digitally adapt The Lion King. Leaning heavily on the original’s musicality, more so than Mowgli and co, the film seeks to transport you into nostalgia and real-life renderings of some of your favourite Disney characters.
Spawning two animated sequels and a hit Broadway show, The Lion King has, since 1994, gone on to spawn its own legacy in film and theatre. Reprising his role as Mufasa, James Earl Jones is the only member of the original cast to feature in both iterations. Donald Glover now voices Simba, Beyoncé Knowles is Nala and Chiwetel Ejiofor is cast as the villainous Scar.
Supported by Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, John Oliver as Zazu and Billy Eichner as Timon, the whole cast is a genuinely interesting one on paper. Still, after the film has tried to wow you with its photo-realistic images, all this is left is a vacuous hole of emotionless creatures walking through serene settings. Like Pride Rock itself, this remake seems a spectacle to behold afar, but when you step closer all you can see are its monotonous shades of grey.
As Simba, Glover is perfectly serviceable, yet it’s his character’s blank face and eyes that remove all genuine feeling from songs such as I Just Can’t Wait to Be King. Emitting almost no melancholy after he has accidentally fallen into Scar’s trap and witnessed his father killed, the key narrative beats hold little pathos given the failure to imbue these creatures with any human features. The clash of singing styles between Glover and Knowles feels like an error and one that is focused too much on the latter star’s pop success. In a moment that should be redemptive for Simba, Can You Feel the Love Tonight? is drowned out by Knowles’ huge vocal range, with Glover’s delicate tones almost absent.
Pre-dating this joyous song that’s turned into a mundane act, the initial set-up of good versus evil against becomes strangely banal. In the absence of Jeremy Iron’s hilariously camp performance, also partnered with a total lack of camp from Rowan Atkinson’s Zazu, the character of Scar is reinterpreted as a stereotypical antagonist. This Scar lacks the cunning to which makes him an iconic pop-culture villain. Portraying him in a very theatrical manner, Ejiofor dials up his previous experience on stage performing Shakespeare.
The film does the character no favours in transforming his devilish song Be Prepared into a live spoken-word piece to a bunch of confused looking hyenas. In this scene, volcanic rock and neon greens are replaced for low key lighting below the moonlight. Not only does this fail in the spectacle, but it also destroys the character of Scar. His wit, sly and viciousness for power and all cast aside in favour for the lighting to be luminous on his fur, as opposed to visually expressing his dreams to be king.
All designed by London Soho based MPC, one cannot fault the African vistas on screen. At times, you do wonder how technology has evolved this far that a piece of lion fur floating through the air looks genuine. However, judging this book by its cover, passion and flair lack from the mouths of these creatures. Even Cats & Dogs, a film from 2001, imbues its feline character’s with more emotion than this summer juggernaut.
Pondering its very creation, one cannot help but feel sad for the state of contemporary cinema. Filled with franchises and live-action re-creations that suck the soulful joy out of an iconic existing property, this release reflects an awful summer release window. One can only hope that paying audiences equally soon get tired and frustrated at the palpable lack of imagination present at Hollywood’s biggest studio.