Review: ‘The Lion King’ Remake Lacks the Spirit of the Original

The “photorealistic” CGI of the new “Lion King” may be more impressive, technologically, than the hand-drawn ’90s original. But in making the characters more closely resemble real animals, a lot is lost.

[Plot spoilers if you’ve never seen the 1994 original.]

CGI Simba, as a cub, is incredibly cute. That can’t be denied. But when his facial expressions are so limited, he can’t convey the same depth of emotion as in the 1994 film.

It’s hard to tell if the stunning vistas of Africa — from the Pridelands to the Elephants’ Graveyard — are real, CGI or a mix in Jon Favreau’s film. But despite the impressive rendering of the animals, we’re always aware we’re watching creatures created in a computer. They just don’t have the same weight real animals have. It’s especially notable in the final battle between Simba and Scar, when we just don’t feel the the impact of their blows.

The emotional beats of the story still come through: Mufasa’s tragic fate is perhaps even more terrible here. And the moment when Simba (voiced by Donald Glover as an adult) sees his father’s face in his own reflection is incredibly moving.

But this retelling doesn’t really add anything new except for a different voice cast (apart from James Earl Jones, who once again voices Mufasa) and a new form of animation.

This style of animation works better for some of the characters than others: Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog come through with flying colors. Perhaps that’s also because they’re already the comic relief, so they’re allowed more physical expression than the lions, who are limited to being noble, scared or angry.

And when these almost-realistic animals start singing, it’s a little jarring. Simba’s version of “Hakuna Mutata” sounds fine, but it just doesn’t look right.

It’s also very hard to tell the lionesses apart: Is newly triumphant King Simba embracing Nala (voiced by BeyoncĂ©) his queen, or his mother, Sarabi (Alfre Woodard)?

The film still got plenty of laughs and applause (as well as tears) at the screening I attended. But when, as many people have pointed out, the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” takes place in full sunshine, something is definitely lost.

The voicework is uniformly excellent, with standouts including Billy Eichner as Timon and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, who seem to be having the only fun here.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar isn’t quite as sinister as Jeremy Iron’s. But Florence Kasumba, who played Ayo, one of the most intimidating Dora Milaje in “Black Panther,” is excellent as head hyena Shenzi. Fellow “Black Panther” alum John Kani is also very good as wise Mandrill Rafiki.

While obviously made with love and the best intentions, the film just can’t recapture the magic of the original.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 paws

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