I’m not sure how Jon Favreau and his technical team made this version of “The Lion King,” but I’m even less sure why they did it.
He has taken an animated classic and turned it into a photorealistic movie with all the virtual reality of a video game. The animals look like they’re right out of a National Geographic nature special — and that’s the problem. Where the original cartoon characters could dance and wiggle and smile and frown, Favreau’s pride and associated other species show no emotions whatsoever.
There’s also a darkness to the scenes that might have been a technical necessity, but makes watching the finished product unappealing. It’s nowhere near as much fun as Favreau’s previous project in this genre, “The Jungle Book” (which I reviewed here).
What you’re left with in this “Lion King” is a couple of hours of the same story in essentially the same shots, a remake with no underlying reason to exist other than a money grab and a desire to show off new technology. It will certainly bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and some interesting making-of extras, but I can’t imagine kids wanting to watch it over and over again at home as the previous generation did with the 1994 version.
It’s a shame because the voice cast is nothing short of stellar: James Earl Jones is back as Mufasa, JD McRary and Donald Glover portray the young and old Simba, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyonce do the same for Nala, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is the villain, Scar. They’re all fine, as is the supporting cast of Alfre Woodard, Penny Johnson-Jerald, Eric Andre, and Keegan-Michael Key.
Parents of young children should warn them ahead of time that there is quite a bit of viciousness in “The Lion King” — though no blood, because this is Disney, which needs the PG rating to ensure the little ones get into the theater, too. But don’t be surprised if they end up crying and sitting in your lap, followed by screams in the middle of the night when they wake up with visions of Mufasa’s death scene in their heads.
On the lighter side, John Oliver is funny and fidgety as Zazu, and the team of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa have their moments, too. The problem for the latter pair is that they can’t sing nearly as well as (nor have the vaudevillian skills of) Nathan Lane and Ernie Sambella, who personified those characters into such lovable sidekicks.
If you’re looking for the latest in digital craftsmanship, the 2019 “Lion King” fits the bill. But if you’re looking for anything else, you’re better off revisiting the 1994 version. I walked out amazed at the visuals, but unimpressed by everything else, so I give this remake a 3 out of 10.