Even the most Disney agnostic of cinema audiences are likely familiar with The Lion King. The 1994 animated feature remains one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved works, and is a masterclass in storytelling, style and emotion. That’s not a bad effort for what essentially amounts to Hamlet retold with some songs and cartoon carnivores. Since Disney seems intent on turning all of their animated features into “live action” concerns, it was inevitable that we’d get to this mane event, and the studio seemingly failure-proofed it. First up, director Jon Favreau – the bloke who directed the surprisingly solid live action The Jungle Book in 2016 – helms the piece. Follow that up with a staggeringly excellent voice cast that includes Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and freakin’ James Earl Jones and you’ve got a sure winner on your hands, right? So why is the end product so weirdly flat?
For those not in the know, The Lion King tells the tale of Simba (JF McCrary/Donald Glover), a young cub who leaves the Pridelands – the domain over which he is destined to one day rule – after the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Not realising he has been manipulated by his jealous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into believing Mufasa’s death was his fault, Simba slinks off in disgrace and becomes a shiftless hippie with Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner). You can probably guess where it goes from there, and to be honest there’s nothing really wrong with the story; it worked in 1994 and it works now. No, The Lion King just feels… off. The animation, while competent and slick, never manages to graze very far outside The Uncanny Valley, and it’s difficult to connect emotionally with furry animal friends who look just a bit too stiff and dead-eyed to be credulous.
Worse still is when the animals, who all look borderline photorealistic, burst into song, which feels more like an acid trip gone horribly wrong while watching a David Attenborough doco than a joyous expression of musical exposition. It’s not all bad, mind you, Pumbaa and Timon manage to inject a little fun into the proceedings and James Earl Jones’ vocal delivery has lost none of its gravitas. And yet, for all of the many positives attached to this project, it just doesn’t take off and consequently feels like an overlong slog through the savanna. Maybe kids will find something to latch onto here, but most of the adults attending will sadly not be feeling the love tonight.