I have criticized Disney remakes in the past for their pointlessness; I have also given some a pass for their ability to entertain. The Lion King is not only a black hole of entertainment, it even goes beyond the realm of pointlessness. It makes no logical sense. It wants these animals to be majestic and lifelike beings. It wants you to imagine them out in the wild right now, or at your local zoo. And yet, their physiognomies are not built to speak with human voices. Their faces are not made to express abject emotions. When they speak, the reality Favreau devotes himself to crafting is jostled into absurdity. You sit there feeling like a park ranger under the influence of hallucinogens, gripped by unending discomfort as the film’s contradictory existence balloons out of proportion. These photoreal oddities talk and sing in an ultra-reality that disallows anything that falls out of the confines of plausibility—except the talking and singing. It neuters the funniest elements of the original’s musical numbers because they would not occur out in the wilderness, and yet these animals still talk and sing like people. And therein lies the problem. They have to talk and sing for this to work—and so why not allow the strictures of reality to fall away to accommodate this sticking point? Why forego all moves towards an imaginative approach if the film’s reality is already upended by having the voices of Donald Glover and Beyoncé come out of these lions’ mouths? Favreau never justifies his strict adherence to fidelity in that regard, and so the whole project feels, plainly put, stupid.
For every ounce of visual splendour that you see in The Lion King’s photoreal effects, there is nothing that makes up for its lack of heart. You could put it under a microscope. You could sort through every individual pixel. But nowhere would you find the emotion that made the original such an enduring work of art. It’s not just because the lions can’t emote (although the absurdity of seeing a placid-faced Simba “mourn” his father’s death is something to behold). It’s because everything apart from the visual effects feels phoned in. Apart from the ever-reliable Billy Eichner’s exuberant take on the meerkat Timon, the voice work here feels especially tired and unconvincing. Favreau also recreates so many shots from the original that you couldn’t care less about the deviations (and most of those aren’t even improvements). Frankly, nothing about this feels justified. As a cynic, I truly do believe Disney thinks the “Circle of Life” that so memorably opens this story is a newly-minted gold coin rather than the various fluxes and tides that keep our world spinning in harmony. Our nostalgia is the mint; our gullibility the coinage that keeps Disney’s coffers expanding more and more. Disney knows we are coining the death of art, and it does not care, for the mintage is vast and plentiful. Soon, this is all we will have. Simulatory soullessness, mindlessly consumed and propagated for a corporation’s benefit.
It will be dire. That’s why we cannot settle.
Be loud. Be bold. Demand quality and originality.
Do not acquiesce to the demise of artistic merit.