The Lion King Remake Pushes the Limits of Technology and Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful, dangerous thing.

The entertainment industry has staked its future on our collective yearning for the past, remaking and rebooting everything on the off-chance we’ll remember it with tangential fondness. For Disney, nostalgia is more than a business strategy; it’s a way of life. The Mouse House has been trading on our emotional connections to its properties since time immemorial, but no direct-to-video sequel or theme park tie-in has been as ambitious or aggressive as the efforts to transform their beloved animated classics into live-action films. For these, Disney has relied heavily on our love of the originals, often by recreating them shot-by-shot for maximum effect. The rub lies in their purpose: because they so closely hew to what already exists in perfect or near-perfect form, how do we regard them as anything more than cynical studio cash-ins? It’s a challenge made fiercer by the fact that, on average, these live-action remakes fail to capture the magic of their animated counterparts. Disney’s cultural currency is magic, and while the remakes have performed strongly with audiences overall, it’s still a looming threat as they work through and beyond the Renaissance period, and fatigue inevitably sets in.

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Remaking the The Lion King is their riskiest endeavor yet. It has been a multi-billion dollar cultural phenomenon for 25 years, and its uninterrupted pop culture presence has given this remake attempt a powerful significance. Its success or failure would serve as a referendum on Disney’s whole live-action campaign and confirm either its brilliance or creative bankruptcy, and any misstep would be an egregious betrayal to an entire generation of fans. It’s a hefty responsibility for director Jon Favreau, who most also work to make a decent movie out of (virtual) thin air. Like The Jungle Book, Favreau used state-of-the-art computer animation to recreate the lush expanse of the African Pride Lands and its animal inhabitants. He takes it a step further by rendering everything in CGI, from specks of desert sand shifting in the wind to the splashes of water as a baby rhino trots by. From a purely technical standpoint, The Lion King has no present equal in film. The level of attention that Favreau and his team paid every detail and every pixel is astonishing, and it’s startlingly easy to think that this was actually filmed in the Sahara. It’s a stunning visual composition that comes closer than other Disney live-action remake yet to meeting the beauty of the animated version.

Were that the only marker of success, than The Lion King would be an unqualified triumph. But flawless technology cannot account for everything, and that fact becomes apparent halfway through Favreau’s recreation of the legendary “Circle of Life” opening sequence. In the original, when Zasu lands in front of Mufasa and kneels, Mufasa greets him with a stern look that melts into a warm smile. It’s a small moment that establishes Mufasa’s character: regal and strong, yet welcoming and compassionate. It’s a critical baseline that every major character will be measured against. Favreau’s version cuts that moment entirely, setting a pattern throughout the film of excising and bypassing anything that requires its digital animals to display visible emotion (while still finding a way to add a wholly unnecessary 30 minutes to the runtime).

Simba (JD McCrary) in The Lion King (courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

Of course, real lions can’t display emotion the way humans do, so why would a photorealistic lion be expected to do the same? Because The Lion King is one of the most emotionally attuned films in the Disney canon, largely because of the animals’ deeply expressive faces. The horror of the wildebeest stampede was amplified by young Simba’s terrified stare, as was Mufasa’s death by his wide-eyed disbelief and devastation. These and other key moments, like grown Simba’s ghostly confrontation with Mufasa, were altered to compensate for the live-action lions’ inability to communicate those complicated emotions. For those who remember the intense power of those scenes, or even the lighter comedy and tender romance, the trade of rich emotionality for jaw-dropping realism is damning. That realism does works sometimes in the film’s favor. There’s few things more precious than baby animals, and seeing kid Simba and Nala cavort through the Pride Lands as they sing along to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is pure joy, and the film’s highest point. It’s also easy to love Mufasa and Simba frolicking beneath the night sky, or Timon and Pumbaa doing just about anything. Still it’s a shallow enjoyment, spurned by a stunning score and powerful imagery, but lacking that inherently human quality in its characters to deepen the experience.

Nala (Beyoncé) and Simba (Donald Glover) in The Lion King (Courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

It’s a problem that the A-list cast must deal with as well. It’s difficult to say whether motion capture performances would’ve worked for Favreau’s approach, but the disconnect between the animals and their voice actors is noticeable. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen handle it best, nearly stealing the film with their delightful, hilarious performances as Timon and Pumbaa. James Earl Jones, the only original cast member, has lost none of his authoritative majesty as Mufasa. Chiwetel Ejiofor and his Shakespearean cadence match Scar’s sinister brutality, while JD McCrary transcends the limitations of CGI Simba. Beyoncé does fine with Nala’s expanded role, but she would’ve benefitted from the expressiveness that motion capture would’ve offered, as would Donald Glover. He’s the only real disappointment in the cast; his offbeat, quirky energy just didn’t fit adult Simba, and definitely didn’t translate through CGI.

It’s impossible to ignore The Lion King remake as a technical marvel, and the sheer amount of work that went into conception and execution. It’s also hard to not smile and laugh and get choked up where you’re supposed to in the film. But there’s the problem: those emotions come from instinct, not from the remake itself. It’s muscle memory tied the 1994 original. The remake offers a disconcerting duality: the chance to see your childhood come to life, and the reality that it can and will never measure up to it. The Lion King isn’t a disaster, nor is it a gleaming beacon atop the Disney’s hill. It’s a perfectly fine, even likable reimagining of the animated classic. And yet, because the original was so powerful and transformative, it still stings with disappointment. If anything, The Lion King is the most direct challenge to our collective nostalgia that’s ever been made, daring us to decide when enough is enough.

If the $192 million that was made over its opening weekend is any indication, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that point.

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