Back in the golden years of Hollywood, long before photorealistic CGI, talking animals were a staple of family comedy and adventure films. Real animals were used, of course – but how to make them talk? Filmmakers discovered that peanut butter would make the animal actors chew slowly, allowing them to convincingly smack their jaws up and down and be cleverly overdubbed with human voice-overs.
I was reminded of this, watching Disney’s new true-to-life The Lion King. To be sure, the visual effects are miraculous: each rock and pebble is individually and lovingly rendered, and the sight of an artificial sun setting on a digital savannah is breathtaking. Likewise, the animal actors are incredible things: at times indistinguishable from the genuine article. The animators at work here have clearly spent hours observing the natural world of Africa, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does wonderful things with the lighting of these environments. As you’ll know if you’ve seen any of the breathless promo videos showing director Jon Favreau at work in his virtual studio, no expense has been spared in bringing this vision of Africa to life.
And then those animals start to talk. I have absolutely no issue with the voice actors, who are all perfectly cast. But watching Donald Glover’s impassioned, sensitive performance lipsynced to a dead-eyed, expressionless virtual Simba is a totally uncanny experience. It’s true that real animals don’t appear happy, angry, sad or fearful the same way in which humans do. Their eyes don’t dart from side to side, and they certainly don’t smile or laugh. So why build a dramatic, $260m movie around them? It’s like watching Shakespeare performed by hand puppets. The limitations of this mode of filmmaking become very clear every time a character is called upon to speak, or react, or sing. Which is often.
As with The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau and his team have decided to keep the musical numbers from the beloved original, but mangle them for the sake of some kind of dramatic plausibility. The songs are shortened, and the choreography has been stripped back – perhaps because singing and dancing animals are just too silly. Elsewhere, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a wonderful actor but emphatically not a singer, has been handed the number Be Prepared and instructed to talk his way through the lyrics. Why did they bother? Thus far, a rather uninspiring thing.
You’ll recognise the story, of course: the young lion prince Simba is being groomed for greatness by his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, regal). When Mufasa is killed, Simba walks away from his destiny at Pride Rock, but is persuaded to return by his betrothed, Nala (Beyonce, queen). Not much changes here. although the story and characters are allowed more space to breathe, adding 30 minutes to the runtime. Jeff Nathanson’s self-aware, often clever additions to the original screenplay might be the thing I appreciated most about this new version, an oasis of original content in a desert of predictability. Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen), aware that they’re side characters in a movie, are a close second.
So the movie proceeds with a frustrating inevitability, and although Favreau conjures moments of genuine power, they’re invariably drawn directly from the hand-drawn original. It’s rare to see such a showcase for both Hollywood’s ambition and laziness in one film. At the time of writing, The Lion King has grossed over $560 million at the box office, and I hardly think my sniffy review will slow down this runaway train. But I can’t recommend this high-powered remake. In years to come, I’d be surprised if this effort is regarded as more than a showreel for selling expensive televisions.