The Lion King is maybe the most sumptuous CGI film ever released, a vision of the natural world so realistic it may even dazzle David Attenborough.
This is The Lion King’s greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness, as by trying to make the savannah as accurate as possible the Disney film seems to forget what it is we loved about the 1995 original.
The plot of the 2019 version of The Lion King is the same as the 1995 film, which itself was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Simba (voiced by JD McCrary/Donald Glover) is the young prince of Pride Rock, who goes into exile after being tricked by his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into causing a stampede that kills Simba’s father Mufasa (James Earl Jones).
However, this 2019 “live-action” version, like all the other recent Disney remakes, tries to show this as realistically as possible.
Some of the world’s top animators have brought the savannah to life and filled it with photorealistic animals from, as the old children’s song goes, the tiny ant to the elephant.
The new Lion King is at its best when it just allows you to wallow in the visuals, much like how Pumba (Seth Rogen) might wallow in the mud.
For example, the film’s standout scene is an almost self-contained short film in the middle of the movie that tracks a tuft from Simba’s mane, giving the animators on opportunity to show everything they can do as this piece of fluff moves from animal to animal.
Elsewhere, however, the animators’ attempts to make the film as realistic as possible mean that we lose some of the most magical moments from the original.
Gone, for example, is the animal pyramid from I Just Can’t Wait to be King, while the scene where Simba sees his father in the clouds is made so dingy that even the makers of Game of Thrones season eight might wish it was more brightly lit.
As part of the attempt to make The Lion King as realistic as possible, the animators have limited the animals’ expressions to movements those creatures can make in real life.
This means that most of the film’s emotional moments are delivered by dead-eyed animals, weirdly reminiscent sometimes of the PG Tips monkeys from the old adverts.
The realism is also a problem for Timon and Pumba, the meerkat and warthog odd couple who befriend Simba when he flees from Pride Rock.
They (particularly Billy Eichner as Timon) are the most entertaining part of the film, but as a real-life warthog and meerkat they are monstrous rather than cute – I can’t imagine Disney will be selling many Pumba plush toys, though doubtless they will try.
Eichner and Rogen are the highlights of a voice cast who mostly give good performances, with the surprising exception of Beyoncé who, despite being one of the Earth’s most charismatic performers, gives nada to her role of Nala.
That said, the film might work better without any voice cast at all, playing as a beautiful nature film with Attenborough himself whispering over the top about the circle of life.
This is because, like all this run of Disney live-action remakes (with the possible exception of the Jungle Book), The Lion King seems to misunderstand what we want from Disney.
We look at the best Disney films and marvel at their visual imagination and pure cinema magic.
We do not sit there thinking, “this is fine, but I wish that warthog was photorealistic.”
Hakuna matata? You better be worried, because there are potentially dozens of these live action remakes to come.
The Lion King comes to UK cinemas on July 19