The most important scene in The Lion King, whether it's the 1994 animated or 2019 "photoreal" version, comes near its midpoint.
The kindly king of Pride Rock, Mufasa, is attempting a daring rescue of his lion-cub son Simba, who's in danger of being trampled by wildebeest. The audience knows, even though Mufasa and Simba don't, that the wildebeest stampede was manipulated into existence by Mufasa's embittered, power-driven brother Scar, who wants to kill his fiercer brother and his smug nephew in order to take over.
Eventually Simba is saved, but not before he witnesses the death of his father, for which he still does not know Scar was responsible. Simba shouts an anguished, heartbroken "No!" before going down into the gorge that serves as Mufasa's resting place and trying to cuddle up with his dad one last time.
It's an emotionally gutting moment in the 1994 animated film, punctuated by the camera zooming out as Simba cries out at the sight of his dead father and coupled with the sight of an adorable little lion trying to snuggle with his father with no hope of ever having another father-son moment. The 2019 remake, directed by Jon Favreau, repeats this moment on just about a beat-for-beat level, down to the camera zooming out as Simba shouts in terror. J.D. McCrary, voicing the young Simba before Donald Glover takes over as the adult version, does an excellent job of sounding just as tearful and desperate and overwrought as the character should be.
His performance, though, stands in stark contrast to just about everyone else in the new The Lion King. Up to that point, it's hard to detect anything close to a personality in the voices of the other performers, from James Earl Jones (reprising his role as Mufasa, and sounding very much like he's less invested in reading the same lines all over again) to Alfre Woodard (the lion queen Sarabi).
Soon after this scene, an understandably downhearted Simba encounters the gregarious Timon and Pumbaa. Voiced now by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively, Timon and Pumbaa have justifiably gotten most of the praise from even the more fiercely critical reviews of this box-office behemoth. As in the original, Timon and Pumbaa serve as necessary comic relief after the death of Mufasa. But this time, the jokes from Eichner and Rogen — who recorded their dialogue together, which is still a rarity when actors record their lines for an animated film of any kind — feel like an unexpected breath of fresh air.
For once, mercifully, the new Lion King is allowing itself to be funny. It's letting itself have a sense of charm and life that isn't defined solely by photorealistic computer technology. The technology in The Lion King (2019) is the one element that just about all critics have agreed on in their reviews. In almost every scene, the VFX looks as convincing as the real thing would (at least to those of us who've never traveled to Africa, and can only see it in pictures or on screens). The choice to make the story one driven by photoreal technology has certainly paid off at the box office: The Lion King has made over $250 million at the domestic box office alone, and will likely be the highest-grossing Disney remake to date, surpassing Beauty and the Beast (2017) when all is said and done.
But photorealism comes at a cost, and within the experience of watching the movie, that cost is personality. When the Timon in the new film greets Simba by saying, "How are you, in as few words as possible?" it's an unexpectedly hilarious moment because it is the first time the film even tries to be funny. Prior to that, the voice cast largely sounds as if they're going through the motions, including, most crucially, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villainous Scar.
The basics of who Scar is have not changed. In both films he's the brother of the king of Pride Rock, and in both films he's always going to be angry that he's no longer next in line to be the king because of the arrival of Simba. One notable difference in the two films is the character's coded sexuality. Scar, in line with Jafar from 1992's Aladdin, had a more coded-as-queer presentation in the animated film. The flamboyance of the character is heightened by Jeremy Irons' colorful vocal performance, and dialogue exchanges like Simba saying that Scar is "so weird," and him replying "You have no idea." (That specific line is a reference to Irons' Oscar-winning role in Reversal of Fortune, granted.)
On the one hand, it's understandable why, in 2019, Disney would not want to go all in on a bad guy in one of its new films being coded as gay. (Notably, both Scar and Jafar had the same supervising animator: Andreas Deja, who is himself — and was at the time — a publicly gay man. This isn't meant to excuse any gay-focused coding in the characters, but it's worth acknowledging the man behind the villains.) Scar is now not only very clearly straight — in one of the few new subplots, Scar is jealous not only of Simba but of Mufasa because he wanted Simba's mother Sarabi to be his mate — but he has no personality aside from being generally fierce. Though Ejiofor is an immensely talented actor, his take on Scar is so muted that you might not even realize that this character is speak-singing a version of "Be Prepared" until halfway through.
Whereas Scar was once terrifying because of Irons' squirrelly, three-dimensional performance and the way in which he slunk over rocks and around his prey, the scares now exist because ... well, Scar is a big enough lion with sharp enough claws and teeth, and lions are generally scary.
The photorealism, of course, drives such acting choices. If the animals look like real animals, would their voices be full of flamboyance or flair, as Irons' was in 1994? The same applies to just about every character and performer in 2019's Lion King. The emotion bursting from the seams of the animated film — whether it's humor or heartbreak, sarcasm or sentimentality — is largely gone from the new one. Though Eichner and Rogen serve as the obvious comedy in the film, the backbiting banter between Scar and Zazu (now voiced by John Oliver) is gone, too, as are briefer moments such as Mufasa belly-laughing as young Simba practices pouncing on the lion king's self-professed "majordomo."
These stumbles can all be chalked up to photorealism. Except when they can't.
The musical numbers in the film, the best possible showcase for voices, are also mostly muted. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" used to be a bombastic, Broadway-style showstopper, but because the real animals of the jungle wouldn't know a box step from a waltz, they don't dance. And the voices of those animals don't dance either. (You could argue that the animals shouldn't even sing in this one, or talk, because ... real animals don't do either of those things.) And yet, when Timon and Pumbaa are called upon to serve as a distraction for Scar and his bloodthirsty hyena crew in the finale, Timon achieves this by singing the opening verse of "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast. One can only imagine how much ticket prices for Disney movies are in the savannah. Do some animals get a student discount if they're not fully grown?
On the surface, most of the actors in the new Lion King feel like, if not an upgrade from their predecessors, then an appropriate choice to step into the shoes of some big names. But so many of them either decided to — or were directed to — treat voice work as the easiest job in the world. (Chris Rock famously joked at the 2012 Academy Awards about how easy it is to record dialogue for the Madagascar films while also making a ton of money.) But good voice acting is almost more challenging than live acting; Tom Hanks has spoken about the challenge of working on Pixar films, with even the most innocuous lines of dialogue.
Just because the characters in The Lion King were photorealistic to look at didn't mean they couldn't have lives behind their more animalistic, less cartoonish eyes. A number of critics, including yours truly, have argued that the new Lion King, for all the effort put in to making the setting seem like the real McCoy, wound up being surprisingly lifeless. No doubt, when you put up a compare-and-contrast between the 1994 and 2019 versions, there's a stark difference, visually. But the lifelessness extended behind the camera.
There are plenty of talented, impressive performers in this new film. But only a couple of them were given the latitude to breathe life into characters who otherwise were just going to look like the lions, warthogs, meerkats, and hyenas you might see at your local zoo. When it comes to voice work, if a character is lifeless, it ends with who brought them to aural life, not the animators.