Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you they were going to take you to a movie and you responded by asking, your voice leaping with a combination of hope and trepidation, “Is it a cartoon?” Remember the triple disappointment when they told you that no, it wasn’t a cartoon, but that sometimes, live-action movies can be good, sometimes even better than cartoons — triple because you knew that a) they were hopelessly, painfully myopic about what makes a movie “good” for kids, b) something in their tone let you know that even they knew they were peddling lies to you, their beloved child, and c) movies are supposed to be fun adventures, not an ordeal that sometimes turns out better than expected? Judging from Disney’s increasingly sad parade of live-action remakes — a spectacle that looks more and more like its ‘90s string of cash-grabby, inspiration-free, direct-to-video sequels, only this time with vastly superior production values — it seems you were right way back then.
The trouble with Jon Favreau’s “photo-real” — as opposed to “live action” — remake of the studio’s animated super-smash hit The Lion King is there right at the outset, in the shot-for-shot copy of the opening scene. As the sun rises over the African plains, all the animals who inhabit the pride lands gather at the base of an enormous rock outcropping to pay homage to their future king: Simba, the leonine son of Mufasa and Sarabi. On the one hand, it’s impressive as all get out: gosh, but the animals look real. On the other, why on earth are a bunch of real animals celebrating the birth of a new apex predator? Hooray, another set of tearing claws! Huzzah, a new pair of murderous jaws! Which one of us will be lucky enough to provide his first fleshy meal? Yes, yes, the question of eating your subjects came up in the animated version, but here’s the genius of animation: it provides just enough of a remove from reality to make the notion of the hunted welcoming the hunter easier to …swallow. Here and elsewhere, the move to live-action becomes a net loss.
As for the rest of it, I can’t imagine that I’m the first critic to have seen this story that’s set in Africa and found his thoughts drifting to that other Africa remake: Weezer’s cover of the Toto top 40 hit. People liked it, but I’m convinced they liked it because they liked Weezer, and because they knew the song already, and because it went down easy — not because it added anything worthwhile, or brought any fresh interpretation to the material. That’s this version of The Lion King all over: there are few, if any, improvements over the original, and there are a number of ways in which it’s worse. The transformation of Hakuna Matata from a mantra for carefree living to an expression of nihilist despair is one example. The muddying of Scar’s relation to the hyenas is another. But mostly, I was bothered by questions that kept bubbling from the photo-realistic format. How did the sun set so fast? Why doesn’t Scar assert his alpha male status and start in with the perpetuation of his bloodline? For that matter, why don’t the hungry lionesses just rise up and kill their lone oppressor? Nature is red in tooth and claw; if you’re going to try to make it mimic civilization, it’s probably best to stick with cartoons.