Interesting timing. At the very moment the Disney company consolidates its hold on the entertainment industry — owning the lion’s share of 2019 box-office receipts, swallowing onetime rival Twentieth Century Fox whole — the giant stubs its toe.
The studio’s ballyhooed series of classic reboots has encountered pushback. “Dumbo” fell short of expectations and overall seemed pretty weird, while “Aladdin” took in big money but generated a hostile critical reaction.
Is this karma catching up with Disney? Or is it — how should we put this — the circle of life?
We’ll find out when audiences get in front of “The Lion King,” a new version of the 1994 animated smash. So far the early critical response has been surprisingly negative — almost angry — about this near-exact copy of the original movie.
The idea was to make the re-do as a photo-realistic as possible, using digital technology. On that score, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel have certainly succeeded; the images are eerily close to reality.
Of course, the animals talk. And sing. “The Lion King” returns us to the African plains, where lion prince Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) learns the royal attitude from his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones).
If you recall the cartoon film, you know exactly what unfolds: Simba’s escape to a different part of the kingdom (where his voice changes to Donald Glover’s), the cub’s friendship with the zany “Hakuna Matata” philosophers Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (uproarious Billy Eichner), and eventual rivalry with mean uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
The movie hedges its bets by bringing in Beyoncé to play Nala, Simba’s romantic interest. This means a strong voice for the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, and presumably a guaranteed hit.
It works a little better than the early reviews suggest. The hero’s journey remains stirring, the Elton John-Tim Rice songs are still tuneful and the consistent humor keeps the movie on point.
But the realistic conception is odd. Much of the joy of animation is the way it uses exaggeration and stylization to bring things to life. Having saucer-eyed characters with humanoid expressions is part of the fun.
The animals in this “Lion King” move their mouths to speak, but otherwise remain somewhat blank, despite the astonishing computer-generated detail.
And when Scar’s dastardly plottings turn dark and scary, the image lacks the romantic spookiness of animation. Here, things just look bleak.
Is the film still going to satisfy young viewers? I assume so. Disney’s “Jungle Book” remake did just fine with its realistic approach.
But the new “Lion King” is a curious kind of non-event. After a few minutes of marveling at the technical skill, I glazed over. The Disney team seems to have been so caught up in proving this kind of animation could be done, they lost the thread of why it should be done. They made their point — but whether you still feel the love is another question.
“The Lion King” (2½ stars)
A photo-realistic remake of the 1994 Disney animated classic, which seems to exist in order to prove a technical point. It’s not bad, but all the technical perfection creates a strange kind of non-event — you miss the exaggerations and magic of traditional cartoons.
Rating: PG, for violence
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-In, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plazat