'Lion King' remake looks great but fails to capture magic of original

  • Young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary), Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) take to the open jungle road in Jon Favreau's remake of Disney's "The Lion King."

    Young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary), Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) take to the open jungle road in Jon Favreau's remake of Disney's "The Lion King." Courtesy of Disney

 
 
Updated 7/19/2019 10:14 AM

"The Lion King" -- ★ ★ ½

Beyoncé sings a new song titled "Spirit," and Pumbaa the flatulent warthog (Seth Rogen) drops an F-word he couldn't say in the original "Hakuna Matata." (Not that F-word, the one that rhymes with "hearted.")

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Other than that, Jon Favreau's faithful, commercially safe remake of Walt Disney's 1994 animated hit "The Lion King" gives its fans exactly what they expect, which leaves no room for surprises or artistic reinvention of the sort Julie Taymor employed when she brought the musical to Broadway.

It took a while for me to figure out why Favreau's handsomely packaged "Lion King" lacks the soul and spirit of its old-school original.

For one thing, Favreau's more leisurely paced production adds half an hour to the original's crisp 88-minute running time to tell the same (almost identical) story.

The eye-popping CGI looks so realistic, it could pass as live-action.

This works wonders for lush, detailed lion fur rippling and shimmering in the golden glow of the sun's natural backlighting.

The evil lion Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) can't wait to be king in "The Lion King."
The evil lion Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) can't wait to be king in "The Lion King." - Courtesy of Disney
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This also works for the opening -- a restaging of the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers -- in which an African Grey parrot flaps its wings, struggling to keep its balance on a moving elephant tusk. Perfect animated realism.

Maybe too perfect?

The more stylized, fantasy-based animation from 1994 sparkled with the illusion of life. Although the new CGI characters appear more lifelike, there's something artificial and removed about them when viewed in close-ups.

Mufasa, the only character here voiced by its original actor (James Earl Jones, now 88) and his queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have their newborn son Simba (JD McCrary, later Donald Glover) introduced to the Pride Lands of Africa by the wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani).

Chiwetel Ejiofor's serviceable Scar, Mufasa's villainous brother, looks more beaten-up, scarred and hungry this time around, but Jeremy Irons' crafty cat came off more gleefully menacing in the animated version.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Nala (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and Simba (voiced by Donald Glover) discuss their future in "The Lion King."
Nala (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and Simba (voiced by Donald Glover) discuss their future in "The Lion King." - Courtesy of Disney

Scar orchestrates the death of Mufasa and convinces young Simba he caused it, sending the feline prince into exile and allowing Scar to take the throne with help from the hyenas.

Simba hooks up with the jungle version of R2D2 and C3P0, Pumbaa and Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and his story goes forth.

Favreau would appear to be an ideal director for this. He remade Disney's animated "The Jungle Book" into a critically acclaimed CGI/live-action box office hit that won a visual effects Oscar.

His "Lion King" may be scarier, darker and more spectacular, but it forgets the lyrics of its song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

It's can you feel, not see.

• • •

Starring: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Other: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG. 110 minutes

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