I don’t know what made me think the new Lion King was gonna slap. Disney has a terrible critical track record with these adaptations. Its most recent attempt was May’s truly garbage Aladdin, which I reviewed and which yielded some of the angriest reader mail of my entire career. (Sorry I didn’t like this movie meant for kids, Susan. You can still see it, it’s still perfectly legal; I’m not going to stop you, even though someone should!!!) Not a single one of Disney’s adaptations has been better than the animated originals, but nevertheless, the company persists — there’s the Maleficent sequel in October, Mulan next year, and The Little Mermaid eventually, once everyone accepts that sure, Ariel can be black because mermaids aren’t actually real, Jesus CHRIST.
Can you blame them? These movies make real fuck-your-childhood money. Cinderella grossed just over a half billion dollars worldwide in 2015. The next year, The Jungle Book grossed just under a billion. The year after that, Beauty and the Beast actually made well over a billion dollars, which is the number of times I screamed when I found out how much money it made. And Aladdin is inching ever closer to the billion mark after opening just two months ago. A billion dollars for a movie about a liar! Of course Disney keeps doing this to us.
There was no reason for me to think that The Lion King was going to be good, but I was convinced it would be anyway. I believed it for months before the movie came out, I believed it when I watched the trailer and there were whispers that surely, this would be bad; there’s no way to watch a bunch of big cats talk without it seeming surreal and creepy. I believed it when my colleagues came back from advanced screenings and told me, Scaachi, no, it does not slap.
I believed it even in spite of the reviews, which have stated, almost defiantly, that The Lion King does not slap. “There is a lot of professionalism but not much heart,” wrote the New York Times. “The closer the movie gets to nature in its look, the more blatant, intrusive and purposeless its artifice seems.” IndieWire wrote that “all these hyper-realistic animals can do is walk around their drab environments and fall over each other.” Our very own senior film reporter Adam B. Vary tweeted: “It turns out lions can’t really emote.” Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be this bad. At least Disney was still using some kind of animation. At least the plot seemed to be largely unchanged from the original. If you suspend reality for a bit — pretend that Beyoncé wouldn’t lead the pride, I reasoned — why couldn’t you enjoy this new kids movie?
I kept on believing until I saw the movie itself. In reality, this particular iteration of The Lion King is, I suppose, the best version of a bad idea. Disney’s not going to stop making live-action movies even though they a) are pretty terrible and b) all live in the uncanny valley and c) aren’t very thoughtful about entertaining the adult audience who are the ones actually buying the tickets. But Disney doesn’t give a shit that you don’t like its movies, so the most you can hope for is that the movie tugs at nostalgia’s heartstrings. Insofar as craven cash grabs go, this is the best result. My firm belief that this movie would be good was, then, maybe less about the promise of quality and more about how low the bar has been set for a Disney redux. I mean, don’t get me wrong: This was no Boss Baby.
Do you like animals but get bored because all they do is sit around and hunt and fuck each other and they never have long, complicated dialogues about identity and birthright and family dysfunction? If so, The Lion King is great. But more accurately, The Lion King is only “good” on a curve, largely because it’s a near shot-for-shot re-creation of the original with a little ad-libbing from Billy Eichner (Timon) and Seth Rogen (Pumbaa). James Earl Jones reprises his role as Mufasa, as he should, and Beyoncé gifts us with a very boring original ballad for the soundtrack, and she scolds an adult Simba in a way that shook me down in my bones. Undoubtedly, the best part of The Lion King is the photo-realism of the animals, which makes the film look like a shockingly accurate Planet Earth documentary.
Oddly enough, though, the best part of the movie is also the worst. What can you expect from photo-realistic animals who can’t grin and groan the way Scar did as an animated cat? Inevitably, this movie lacks a lot of the original’s magic because it’s hard to make a real-looking adult Simba appear as sexy as the animated version, a character that 6-year-old me once hoped would step on my neck.
We’ll have this argument again, in a few years probably, when Disney threatens to make a real-life version of Toy Story or Frozen or The Incredibles or Up. They will find new ways for us to feel embittered and angry that a company built on creating our beautiful childhood memories is now destroying them by giving Woody a real face and arms and hands and, of course, the promise of a penis even though he’s a TOY. No one wants that. But Disney will do it anyway because this isn’t about what we want. When will we learn that?
At least The Lion King adhered faithfully to the source material. At least it opted for some sort of animated lions instead of real people in lion costumes, or whatever other terrible idea they could’ve come up with. Not to make this about Aladdin again, but Aladdin was really bad. The human performances were more wooden than these not-real animals were. At least in this movie, you KNOW Timon is gay. You need to find pockets of joy where you can, OK?
The mistake is expecting anything at all from a Disney live-action adaptation. It was foolish, maybe, to think that Beyoncé and Donald Glover could make this movie great when all they’re really doing is supplying voiceovers to National Geographic stills. Is the mistake that Disney seems to think it can remake its old movies without the originals standing as far superior comparison points? Or is the mistake that we go to these movies, desperate for them to slap, looking for a reassurance that we love Disney movies not just because they remind us of a simpler time in our lives but because they actually are good, and can be good in any iteration?
But listen, if a movie can nearly bring you to tears during an extended sequence in which a tuft of Simba’s hair floats away in the wind and then along a river, and then flies into a tree, where it is eaten by a giraffe and then turned into a giant poop, which then hardens, and then the poop is rolled around by a dung beetle before it cracks open and the tuft of hair flies, again, to Rafiki, who figures out Simba is alive, then I would have to say that yes, the movie in question absolutely slaps.