I don’t know how they did it.
But Disney’s pristine, photorealistic rendering of the animated smash “The Lion King” trades one style of animation for another, marking a simultaneous advance and retreat for modern filmmaking.
It’s a step forward technologically and three steps back every other way. It represents a new high and a new low in Disney’s ongoing recycling program.
It’s persuasive, meticulous work within its chosen visual landscape, as far as it goes.
And for me, it goes nowhere.
The new “Lion King” has every reason to exist in fiscal terms. It has no reason to exist as a movie we might take with us into our futures.
As Everett Sloane put it in “Citizen Kane”: “It’s no trick to make an awful lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money.”
Director Jon Favreau, who knows a thing or two, managed a pretty good result when he tried something similarly photorealistic with “The Jungle Book” three years ago. No such luck here.
“The Jungle Book” featured one human actor surrounded by a passel of photorealistic digital critters. The new “Lion King,” like the old one, is all critters. Somehow that changes everything, and the “Lion King” remake offers twice the trauma and none of the zip of its 1994 source material.
The new movie’s about a half-hour longer than the animated version. Length doesn’t necessarily mean padding, as anyone who fell for Julie Taymor’s majestic stage version of “The Lion King” has discovered first-hand. The first few minutes of that theatrical titan? Holy cats. Unforgettable.
Giraffes, created by humans on stilts, strolling down the aisles. A rotating “gazelle wheel,” poetry in motion. An actress manipulating a wondrous rod-puppet cheetah creation, moving so that a feline licking its paw becomes a moment vividly recalled decades later. It was the stuff of dreams, and the highest sort of commercial art.
Opening on Broadway in 1997, Taymor’s vision remains there still, and has toured all over the world. (Taymor served as an executive producer on Favreau’s picture.) The stage incarnation of “The Lion King” shines as a working model for how a titanic entertainment corporation, looking to capitalize on its revenue streams, can elevate a property by respecting the material up to a point. And then letting the collaborators go their own way.
Compare those opening minutes to the opening of the new film version. Quite naturally the new film keeps both eyes on the ’94 movie. Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, as he did 25 years ago) and Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard) bring a prince cub into the world and introduce him to a life of royal privilege and responsibilities, to the tune of “Circle of Life” by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel pays close attention to the light, while the animation armies take care of the wind in the grass, and the grateful fealty in the eyes of each Pride Land species gathered for the occasion.
The opening does the job. It looks real-ish. And it’s crushingly unimaginative.
Watching a warthog pass gas in water, realistically, does not improve on the same bit in the ’94 version. Watching a realistic wildebeest stampede, or Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofordoes the voice, less insidiously foppish than Jeremy Irons) crush the hopes and dreams of young Simba in lifelike scene after scene — these aren’t upgrades. They’re a drag.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson bears down, heavily, on Scar and the hyenas in his adaptation. The dark side gets all the attention in the new “Lion King.” Musically, Favreau’s film learned a few lessons from Taymor’s stage version, at least; there’s a lot less white bread in the orchestrations and in the vocals.
Regarding Beyonce Knowles-Carter: She voices the adult Nala, and delivers the new song “Spirit.” She’s fine. Of course she’s good. Donald Glover as the adult Simba — also fine, also no surprise. They keep their material honest, and you wish you didn’t know the material quite so well.
Some of the other vocal casting strokes work: Seth Rogen turned out to be exactly the right choice for Puumba the warthog, and his improvised line about locally sourced grubworms is one of the two legitimate laughs in the movie. The other is a shameless shout-out to “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s own “Beauty and the Beast.”
The new music helps, a little. But the movie is a karaoke act, re-creating the original movie’s story beats beat-by-beat-by-beat.
Do I just have it in for Disney’s recycling program? Well, yes, of course. My enjoyment of the individual animation-to-live-action Disney do-overs lies in near-direct opposition to how much money they made. In other words, I liked director David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” best. So take this review of “The Lion King” with a grain of salt, or an entire salt mine.
That said: I challenge Disney to plow at least some of the money it’s making on 2019’s four biggest hits so far — “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Aladdin,” “Toy Story 4” and, now, probably, “The Lion King” — into projects that look to the future. Time marches on, and technology has time on a leash. But photorealistic animation bores me, no matter how persuasive it is. It’s replication, not invention, even the best of it.
Favreau’s picture tells an inadvertent cautionary tale: If artistic recycling turns into over-hunting your own food supply, pretty soon the Pride Lands may start looking a little thin.
Financially this cat’s in the bag. Cinematically, though, “The Lion King” reminds me of that “Sweet Smell of Success” line delivered by Tony Curtis: “The cat’s in the bag, and the bag’s in the river.”
“The Lion King” opens Thursday evening, July 18.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.