The more realistic the animals look, the more you wonder why they’re singing and why the animated version was more of a blast.
In an episode of “Walt Disney’s Disneyland,” from 1956, the man himself explained a few principles of his trade. Dressed like any other company boss, in a gray suit, gray tie, and white pocket square, Disney faced the camera. “Impossible cartoon actions will seem plausible if the viewer feels the action he’s watching has some factual basis,” he said. His point was then illustrated by a cartoon cow, the bell around whose neck rang whenever you pulled her tail. Fair enough.
So what would Uncle Walt make of “The Lion King”—not the animated film, from 1994, but the new C.G.I. version, directed by Jon Favreau? Every beast you see here, from elephant to elephant shrew, and every square inch of habitat, from desert sand to belching mud, is computer-created, and one can but marvel at the verisimilitude. If you examined stills from the movie, you might mistake it for a wildlife documentary. Most of the animals, however, must also speak and sing, and that’s where the problems creep in. The hairs on the golden mane of the hero, Simba (Donald Glover), may be present and correct, but, when he delivers dialogue, his great mouth gives a chewy little ripple, as if he had a morsel of baby gazelle stuck in his back teeth. The colossal effort to make him look like a real lion, in other words, collides with the need to turn him into a character, and the mashup is profoundly disconcerting. Disney’s axiom should be revised as follows: “Digital action, which makes everything possible, will seem implausible if the viewer feels that the action he or she is watching has some base elements of cartoon.” Yet cartoons were meant to be a blast.
The plot of the film is as it was before, drawing equally on “Bambi” (1942) and “Hamlet.” Why nobody had the guts to call it “Hambi” I could never understand. The top cat is Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, reprising his role from 1994), who reigns over the pride lands, and whose throne is destined to pass to his son, Simba. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), mangier yet smarter, has other ideas. He arranges to have Mufasa stampeded to death and also to make Simba feel responsible—a twist so splendidly callous that even Claudius would smile to hear of it. Scar then proceeds to desolate the kingdom, with the help of hyenas, while Simba, in exile, grows up to become a pleasure-hunting, grub-eating sluggard. His pals are Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen, in case you hadn’t guessed), and his worries are whittled to zero, until he bumps into Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), a friend from cubhood. At her bidding, he returns to the fray and fights for the right to rule.
A word about that bidding. Let’s be honest: when the voice of Beyoncé tells you to do something, you do it. Her command is also a reveille, though, summoning the age-old Disney work ethic. To be a slacker—like Pumbaa or Timon, like the boys lured to Pleasure Island, in “Pinocchio” (1940), or like Baloo, in “The Jungle Book” (1967, and again in 2016)—is temptingly boffo, but at some point the lazing has to stop. Disney feature films, from the start, have been like classic roadsters: hard, shiny, streamlined, and fuelled by compulsory fun. Morally and emotionally, they are built not to idle but to take an audience of kids and get them somewhere. That is why anarchy, of the sort unleashed by Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia” (1940), never lasts for long. The call to order is just too strong. Simba should not be killing time; he should be using his time responsibly, and killing Scar.
And what of Favreau’s own labors in “The Lion King”? To judge by the infinite pains that he takes, he is engrossed by a desire to match the film of 1994, as if fearful of wounding the tender sensibilities of its fans. So protective are we of the works that we clung to in our youth, it would appear, that we can brook no alteration. Nothing must be done to frighten the horses—or, at the beginning of “The Lion King,” the zebras, which trot along on precisely the same diagonal as they did in the earlier movie. Rarely has brand recognition soared to such fetishistic heights, and I regret to inform you that, aside from the updating of the vocal cast, the most blatant discrepancy between the old and the new is a very slight increase in the comedy of flatulence. Big change.
Not that this obsession with copying is necessarily wrong. There’s nothing novel about it, that’s for sure. If you missed Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” when it opened at Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, at the end of the fifteenth century, you had a chance to catch it later, when it was remade—with all the original cast!—by a guy named Giampietrino, fifteen or twenty years on. (Another guy, Boltraffio, may have lent some muscle.) One art historian describes Giampietrino, who made a habit and a career of such facsimiles, as an “exploiter of Leonardo’s repertory,” and, if you don’t buy the idea that the will to exploit lies deep in the mercantile soul of man, look around you. Or go to your nearest multiplex. A sublime sacramental vision, painted first on a dry wall and then on canvas, may stand at the furthest remove from Hollywood’s windy warthogs, but the craving is permanent. Somebody, somewhere, will always want more of the same.
In one respect, it will be years before we know the fate of “The Lion King” in this latest reincarnation. Will children cherish it? Will they return to it, over and over, as other kids did to its predecessor? I happen to find the live-action Disney reboots easy to admire but hard to warm to—supremely unlovable, indeed, and stripped of the consoling charm that we look for in their animated sources. What makes “The Lion King” unusual is that, for anyone who does want to see it imagined afresh, rather than merely reconstituted in strenuous detail, there is another option. Check out Julie Taymor’s stage production, which had its Broadway première in 1997 and continues at the Minskoff Theatre. Get a seat on the aisle, so that you feel the rush when the actors spring past you, during the opening number, “Circle of Life,” with antelopes stuck on their heads. If, as a citizen of the free world, in a city pledged to liberal democracy, you can think of nothing more delightful than a musical pageant that endorses dynastic succession, the restoration of imperialist patriarchy, and a heavy carnivorous diet, then the Minskoff, not the movie theatre, is the place to be.