- Walt Disney Pictures
What if this Lion King had come first? It's an interesting thought experiment, sort of a second-cousin to the idea that drives the current theatrical feature Yesterday: What if we woke up in a world where Disney had never released a hand-drawn animated film called The Lion King in 1994, and this story were appearing now for the first time, in the age of photorealistic CGI recreations of real-world animals? If there's anything wrong with it—and by extension, with Disney's other recent retreads of its animated classics—is it only that we know it's a cover version?
Because on a baseline level, director Jon Favreau's version of The Lion King is clearly an impressive technical achievement. Virtually every story beat is identical to that of its predecessor—from the "Circle of Life" introduction of the young lion prince Simba, through the death of Simba's father, Mufasa, (a returning James Earl Jones) and Simba's guilty self-exile, to the rise of Mufasa's brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as new tyrannical ruler of the kingdom, to the grown Simba (Donald Glover) being forced to decide if he has a responsibility to return home. All of the Elton John and Tim Rice songs that became inescapable earworms are here, along with a couple of new ones, because, you know, gotta have something for the Oscars. Maybe those same elements—Hamlet by way of Disney, right down to the quintessentially Shakespearean mix of high drama and low comedy—freshly released, would still have made for a blockbuster success on its own merits.
Maybe. But we have lived with another version of The Lion King for 25 years, and there's no way to pretend that this is the right way to tell this story.
There are plenty of individual points of comparison that could make for a tough call deciding which of the two versions wore it best. Some of the voice performances here are particularly strong, from Billy Eichner's version of Timon the meerkat to Beyoncé's fierce Nala; others fall short, like Ejiofor feeling much more generic than the purring villainy Jeremy Irons brought to Scar. There are sequences pulled straight outta Lion King '94 that are improvements, like an expansion of the throwaway gag where Timon and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight;" others are dull miscalculations, like Scar's "Be Prepared" losing the staging that turns it into a creepy preview of Scar's fascistic leanings. And maybe the self-aware jokes in this version—including a nod to another one of Disney's animated classics—provide some stronger comic relief than mere flatulence ever did.
But there's a so-authentic-you're-afraid-it-might-trample-you elephant in the room: These characters are designed first and foremost to look like real animals, not to create characters. While it's absolutely possible to design a CGI animal character who evokes profound emotion—cough, Paddington, cough—that never appears to have been a goal of anyone involved in making this Lion King. The stylization that's not only possible, but necessary, in hand-drawn animation vanishes completely, just like it did in Favreau's Jungle Book. Timon's line readings don't get to become funnier by virtue of coming out of a face that's not just that of an actual meerkat, but a face that is specifically, idiosyncratically Timon's face. The character design of Lion King '94's adult Simba had a gentle shagginess that made it easy to wonder if he would be able to challenge the ruthless Scar; this Simba simply looks like a big fucking lion. The final battle between lions and hyenas feels not just intense with these real-looking animals, but borderline brutal. Then there's what is sacrificed in the songs, since there's no way for faces to express the joy of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" or "Hakuna Matata." It might as well be one of those novelty mounted fish that flaps its jaw to "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
The Lion King is hardly a sacred text; Julie Taymor's Broadway musical version managed to find a different way of interpreting the story that had its own distinctive appeal. This particular notion, however, felt doomed from the start—an exercise in "can we" that should have stopped at "should we." Our thought experiment doesn't work, because we know why The Lion King '94 was charming and satisfying. It had personality. This version can make animals look more real, but it can't make them more alive.