Disney’s new live-action remake succeeds by sticking with what made its animated predecessor such a classic.
Patriarchy, monarchy, and an aristocratic view of the natural order of things make for a problem-free philosophy. That was the message of the original The Lion King, and the new live-action remake doubles down on it. There is even a restoration: James Earl Jones returns to the throne as Mufasa. This film is so conservative, it’s practically reactionary, but if you seek disapproval of the reactionary tendency, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Directed by Jon Favreau, who has exhibited a conservative streak in previous films, the live-action (or photorealistic) Lion King is like a polished cover version of a perfect song. Twenty-five years ago the opening scene of the original was a gooseflesh moment, dizzying in its splendor, the most potent dramatic scene to appear in an animated movie ever, or at least since Pinocchio half a century earlier. For 2019, Favreau recreates that moment shot by shot and (gooseflesh redux) it’s equally glorious. Even the title card lands as it did before. Sometimes not changing anything is a daring choice, and though Favreau’s take does much less original thinking than his 2016 live-action Jungle Book did, it never feels like an insipid dinner-theater remake, as this summer’s Aladdin did. And like The Jungle Book, The Lion King brilliantly melds Disney’s incomparable tradition of animation with its storied history of nature filmmaking to create a satisfying synthesis. Of the seven live-action remakes Disney has made since 2010, when Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland started the trend, the two best are by Favreau.
The Lion King is, you’ll recall, the tale of a band of ugly ingrates and malcontents whose class resentment causes them to upend the social order at the urging of a hateful, self-serving demagogue. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) seizes power like Lenin, via murder and treachery, and seeks to maintain it by making redistributionist noises to sucker the poor. He calls for a “coup,” then declares, “From now on, the hyenas eat first.” This is where Bill de Blasio, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leap to their feet and cheer. Bad news, comrades: Scar is as worthy of your admiration as most of your other heroes. Later he lets slip that he despises the hyena-proletarian class that is his political base, and plans a bit of mass murder, like most other regicidal revolutionaries. The hyenas are not his constituency but simply the weapons with which he achieves power. Not that the their demands should be given undue weight: “A hyena’s belly is never full,” we are told, by way of warning about what happens when you pander to the slavering hordes.
Within this needful drama, though, there are plenty of light touches. Adding much material to the original — this version is half an hour longer — Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay does more with the meerkat Timon and the warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively). This time, the amusing companions who shepherd the crown prince of the lions, Simba (Donald Glover), play a role not unlike Falstaff plays for Prince Hal, and Simba must learn to pull away from them. They tell him that the circle-of-life metaphor with which his father, Mufasa, guided his thinking is erroneous: Life is actually a meaningless, meandering line, which makes irresponsibility a virtue. Simba isn’t so sure; he is born to a sense of duty, to serve as protector of all things the light touches, and to be mindful of history. But if all things are connected, Pumbaa notes nervously, “Doing whatever we want might not be so cool.” Observing the stars, Timon gives a fanciful explanation for them, Pumbaa a scientific one. Only Simba attaches to them their proper mythic dimension, tying their meaning to the legacy of the great leaders who came before. The others scoff, but the lesson will not be lost on even young audience members.
Most of what’s new in the script amounts to extensions of the comic interludes, and some of these attempts to spice up the proceedings fall a bit flat. (There’s a priceless Beauty and the Beast reference, and I can foresee it leading to many more such intramural gags.) A few too many lines go to John Oliver as Zazu, the bird who flies around squawking nervously about the news, which seems like a witty practical joke Favreau is playing on Oliver. Rogen has plenty of amusing bits and makes the most of them with his enthusiastic line readings, while Eichner is almost equally funny. Glover is a weak element; as a voice actor he is undistinguished and he doesn’t sing especially well, though everyone sings better than Rogen, whose brief attempts at warbling might be the most vicious assault on the ears since Pierce Brosnan’s in Mamma Mia. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, as she is now billed, plays Nala, Simba’s girlfriend, but barely has an impact.
These are mere quibbles, though; the only big drawback of the remake is that you already know everything that’s going to happen. For future generations discovering the story for the first time, it may be a toss-up which edition is preferable; each of them is garlanded with those great Elton John–Tim Rice songs and imbued with Hamlet-inflected gravitas. Favreau found something that wasn’t broken, and didn’t fix it. If only he could direct all of Disney’s remakes.