‘The Lion King’ Fails To Roar

Photo courtesy of Disney

By Susan JAMES

There is something strangely dated in Disney’s remake of the animated classic “The Lion King.” At the time of the original film’s 1994 release, it was groundbreaking – an African story that borrowed from “Hamlet” and “Richard III” but left no doubt about its African roots. Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation was even more innovative, a breathtaking display of human drama dressed up with the heads of animals. Twenty-five years after the release of the original movie, a “live action” version is now hitting the screens. But advertising “The Lion King” as a live action movie is in itself a kind of cheat. Since even Disney can’t get a bunch of African wildlife to kumbaya in musical numbers, the studio’s new CGI version lands somewhere between animation and David Attenborough.

Stretching what in 1994 was 88 minutes of anthropomorphic animal adventure into over two hours of running time has not helped. Quick strokes of drama have become ponderous set pieces – A Father’s Advice, A Father’s Death, An Uncle’s Betrayal. Not until the halfway mark when the abject and abandoned cub called Simba is rescued from a flock of predatory vultures by a warthog and a meerkat does the movie begin to gain traction. The credit has to go to Seth Rogen voicing Pumbaa and Billy Eichner as Timon. For all of the hype over Beyoncé as Nala and the other heavy hitters as voice actors, it’s Seth and Billy, ably assisted by JD McCrary as Young Simba, who (finally) bring the entertainment.

The story hasn’t changed much. It’s just been stretched to death. 

Curious cub and royal heir Simba is being trained by his lion king father Mufasa (the inimitable James Earl Jones) to succeed as king one day. Wicked uncle Scar (a growling Chiwetel Ejiofor), who had challenged Mufasa for the crown in the past and lost, is determined to do away with brother and nephew once and for all and take his place as king. His collaborators in this overthrow of king and prince are a gang of motley hyenas led by the hyena queen Shenzi (Florence Kasumba). And this is where the story loses its relevance at a time when powerful women (think women’s soccer or Centre Court, Wimbledon) are in the forefront of the news. 

Anthropomorphism of animals invites comparisons. Anyone who has watched a nature show on Africa knows that the hunters and true dominators of any lion pride are its females. The males lie around and yawn a lot. Yet here we are presented with a pride of females who never hunt and are so passive they allow a usurping male to take over their entire territory with little more than a “Well, what can you do?” The evil Shenzi by contrast is positively inspiring. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Under the tutelage of Pumbaa and Timon, Simba grows up far from the Pride Lands he was once intended to rule but eventually, as he must, he returns home to fight for supremacy with evil Uncle Scar. Circle of life, right? Writers Jeff Nathanson and Brenda Chapman have done no favors by extending the running time of the movie beyond what the story can bear. Director Jon Favreau, a personal favorite over in the Marvel Universe, just can’t seem to get that story off the ground. It growls, it sings, sometimes it amuses but, unlike the mighty Mufasa, it never roars. 

See you at the movies!