Based on the 1994 animated movie, 'The Lion King' tells the story of the lion cub Simba (Donald Glover, JD McCrary) who flees his home after his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) dies at the hands of Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). While in hiding, he befriends Timon and Pumba (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen), but soon learns that he cannot run from his destiny forever...
If the task set before the director and writer was "recreate 'The Lion King' with photo-realistic animals and environments", then on a technical level, this movie could be deemed a success. All the familiar beats and moments are there. The triumphant presentation of Simba to the pride, with the blasting rendition of 'The Circle of Life'. Scar's growling lyrics to 'Be Prepared'. The heart-wrenching moment when Simba sees his dead father in the sky and implores him to remember who he is.
It's all there, and yet it doesn't have any of the same impact. It's painted and traced over, but for whatever reason, the soul of it is missing. Maybe it's the fact that you're essentially watching pixels - finely-tuned, beautifully-realised pixels but pixels none the less - moving around the screen, and not hand-drawn animations with a human touch of imperfection to them. Maybe it's just that the voice cast can't wring the same life out of the dialogue. Maybe it's just the familiarity of seeing 'The Lion King' being done again when it's still quite fresh in people's minds and is rarely far from it.
Jon Favreau scored a hit with 'The Jungle Book', and while the CGI is improved here, there's no denying that having that one human in the middle - Mowgli - allowed the audience to connect with it. 'The Lion King', of course, doesn't have that.
It's more than just the lack of a human connection, however. Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter, talented singers though they are, can't seem to push their own personalities and performances enough to make any kind of an impact. Even Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, by far the funniest thing in the movie, feel like they're somehow having to filter out of any kind of nuance.
It's a Disney animated movie so it's always going to be somewhat homogenised with the edges blunted to suit a broader taste. The original movie, for all of its references to 'Hamlet', was a mainstream hit and one of Disney's most celebrated efforts that ushered in a new era for the studio. This iteration of 'The Lion King' won't do that, how could it? It's already had its moment in the sun, which ultimately begs the question, why even make it in the first place?
Leaving aside the obvious answer to that question for a minute, there are positives to 'The Lion King' that can't be ignored. It looks absolutely gorgeous and is probably the best-looking of these live-action remakes so far. The cast, when they're firing on all cylinders, are great and the soundtrack is as joyful and rousing as ever. Likewise, Beyoncé's new track - 'Spirit' - works wonderfully with the original songbook and doesn't feel wedged in for the sake of something new.
'The Lion King' has its moments and if you never saw the original, this would definitely mean a lot to you. However, the fact remains that it's not an original effort, and it will always be compared to the original and ultimately comes up short against it because nothing can replace the original - not even an all-star cast, a new song, or cutting-edge computer graphics. It suffers by virtue of being a remake when the original was perfect on its own.