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The Lion King review: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Attenborough

The new Lion King is a fearsome thing of beauty, says Cath Clarke, but what’s been lost in the shift to live action?

If a scene from Disney’s new live-action remake of The Lion King popped up on your TV screen unannounced, you’d probably think you were watching a David Attenborough documentary.

The ‘live action’ tag is actually wide of the mark – this film is almost entirely computer generated. And technologically, it’s a thing of wonder, a mindblowing miracle of photorealism. The glowing red sunsets over the savannah, the individual strands of golden lion cub fur so downy soft that you can practically feel it – all of it looks like the real thing. Then a lioness opens her mouth and a Beyoncé song comes out. Does Sir David know who Beyoncé is? I doubt it. The circle of life isn’t that big.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that The Lion King is basically the tale of two parenting styles.

The original Lion King is a sacred Disney classic. Released in 1994, it was Bambi for a generation – the film that taught kids the brutal lesson that parents die and life can be cruel. Wisely, director Jon Favreau (The Jungle B00k) and writer Jeff Nathanson have barely messed with a word. Scene by scene, the new version is virtually a replica. Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) is the lion cub born to rule over Pride Rock. His dad Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only actor to reprise his role) is a proud wise king teaching his son and heir to respect all creatures great and small – even the creatures soon to be chomped for supper.

Little Simba is forced to flee the Rock when Mufasa is killed by his own brother, villainous uncle Scar, voiced in the earlier version with Shakespearean grandeur by Jeremy Irons. Here Chiwetel Ejiofor does a decent if unadventurous job, though the character is fearsomely animated, mangy with slackened muscles, a visible rib cage and greasy mane. Alone in the world, away from home, Simba is befriended by comedy duo Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog, their lines hilariously ad-libbed
this time around by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. The pair’s freewheeling rendition of Hakuna Matata is one of the few instances where this remake bests the original. Though credit to John Kani too for a more respectful performance of the shaman Rafiki.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that The Lion King is basically the tale of two parenting styles. Simba is raised first by strict disciplinarian Mufasa, then Timon and Pumbaa, the snack-when-you-feel-like-it, stay-up-all-night permissive liberals. If Disney ever runs out of merch ideas, it could put out a Lion King parenting manual. The film gains 30 minutes running time by fleshing out back stories and the female characters get more screen time and agency. Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino and creator of the TV series Atlanta) voices Simba as a young adult, returning to the pride to claim the throne. Beyoncé is Nala, his childhood friend and love interest.

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But what does a lioness’s come-hither glance look like? The facial expressions are where the film came unstuck for me. The I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Attenborough animation is one thing. But the characterisation is pure lions-falling-in-love Disney anthropomorphising. In real life lions run the emotional gamut of fury to boredom. They don’t do romance. The animators compensate with some nice body language, but the facial expressions are flat and dull. In the end The Lion King left me longing for the emotional moments of the first film – Simba pawing the body of his father, refusing to accept he is dead. And then there’s the original’s hand-drawing – that cocky little swing of the rump as the boy lion struts along with his two new pals. Not real, but very true.

The Lion King is in cinemas from July 19 @CathxClarke

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