The uncanny valley is a place whose ecology is changing even faster than that of planet Earth. As our climate grows ever more unpredictable and extreme, conditions in the valley are stabilizing; its flora and fauna are flourishing as ours struggle to survive. Only 15 years ago, Robert Zemeckis’ early experiment in 3D computer animation, The Polar Express, struck some viewers as more flesh-crawling than heartwarming, its human figures creepily stiff and waxen. (The film still performed well at the box office and garnered numerous award nominations; many critics loved it, and audiences were curious to experience this divisive new technique for themselves.) Since then, advances in digital animation technology, including in performance capture, CGI-augmented stop motion, and the combination of human and animated figures in the same frame, have happened so rapidly and in so many domains at once that the once-steep uncanny valley—the term dates back to the early 1970s, when a Japanese robotics scientist coined it in a paper on the problems of humanoid robot design—appears to be flattening out into a vast hyper-realistic savannah.
It’s on this eerie terrain that The Lion King, Jon Favreau’s remake of Disney’s 1994 animated classic, takes place. The technique used to render the leonine protagonists and the other principal characters—hyenas, birds, antelope, a warthog, a meerkat—is neither performance capture, stop motion, nor traditional animation. In interviews, Favreau has declined to define the method, but as I understand it, the film’s images were created wholly in digital space, without direct input from the actors’ bodies and without filming any actual animals. Whatever was done to achieve it, the result is startlingly photorealistic, like a high-end nature documentary.
Gone is the cheery anthropomorphism of traditional Disney animation, all those wide please-love-me eyes and appealingly oversize heads. Even more distant is the arty deconstructionist approach of Julie Taymor’s puppet-based stage adaptation, even though Taymor was one of the producers on the film. The goal of this Lion King, from a visual point of view at least, isn’t to playfully evoke lion-hood but to recreate in every detail the experience of looking at a real lion: the way it moves, sleeps, runs, hunts. This means that when the lion in question begins to sing, dance, and talk, the uncanny savannah takes a sharp dip. The great pleasure humans take in watching wild animals lies in the mystery we sense in the presence of other species, that self-sufficient quality that springs first of all from their silence (or at least lack of human speech), and it’s a major cognitive leap to suddenly have to weigh the merits of various beasts’ vocal chops or ability to land a punchline.
Maybe because he knew this technique might have a distancing effect on audiences seeking a nostalgic Lion King fix, Favreau has chosen to hew very closely to his source in other respects, sometimes seeming to reproduce the original almost frame for frame. (That soaring “Circle of Life” cold open, ending with the triumphant presentation of the newborn cub Simba to a multispecies throng of his loyal subjects, recalls the 1994 version down to the composition of shots and the rhythm of the editing.) The director has said in an interview that he hopes viewers will benefit from the “emotional architecture” laid down by the earlier film; this comes vanishingly close to saying he hopes the fond memories in viewers’ minds will fill in the blanks left by his hypernaturalistic protagonists’ inexpressive faces.
Uncanny singing animals aside, a secondary effect of the film’s commitment to zoological verisimilitude is to place the voice actors in a relatively powerless position. It’s a strange choice to assemble an all-star cast from various walks of celebrity—actors, pop singers, rappers, comedians—and then make their only contribution a verbal one. Donald Glover and Beyoncé, who provide the voices of the adult Simba and his friend and eventual love interest Nala, are performers whose physicality is a huge part of their appeal; think of Bey’s transfixing onstage charisma, or the command of his body that made the choreography for Glover’s “This Is America” video so memorably unsettling. The voice cast here gets reduced to pure sound in a way that, say, the actors in the Toy Story films don’t, because the Pixar characters, unconstrained by the strictures of looking “real,” can be animated to incorporate the expressions and movements implied by the actors’ voices. In the cases of Glover and Beyoncé in particular, that constraint results in performances that are curiously flat. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with their line readings, but neither Simba nor Nala quite comes to life in their adult incarnations. Their cub selves, voiced early in the film by JD McCrary and Us’ Shahadi Wright Joseph, come off better.
There are voices rich enough to transcend this dilemma. James Earl Jones, the only returning actor from the original, invests Simba’s royal father Mufasa with appropriately rumbling gravitas. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes the king’s perfidious brother Scar into a pleasurably hissable villain. And perhaps in part because their characters are more cartoonishly rendered than the noble lion clan, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as the warthog-and-meerkat team Pumbaa and Timon steal the movie in their many comic-relief scenes—even if their big number, “Hakuna Matata,” lacks the insouciant swing the Broadway veterans Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella brought to the original.
I’ll be honest: The Lion King is not my favorite piece of Disney IP (the mere fact I think of it in those terms, rather than, say, as a “story,” says a lot). The original came out when I was just enough of a young adult to resist what then seemed like a kids’ movie and has thus failed to imprint on my psyche the way plenty of animated classics have before and since. The Broadway production, which I saw many years into its now 22-year run, was wildly inventive in its use of puppetry and stagecraft, but the story, an archetypal tale of primogeniture and Oedipal guilt, still struck me as drearily Joseph Campbell–esque. More recent adventure films aimed at young people have begun to question the premise of “the One”—a special individual, traditionally male, who’s selected by fate or by some authority figure to save the world, or in this case the once-peaceable realm known as the Pride Lands, from its current fallen state. Now that the mythical world in question is coded as black in a way it wasn’t before—all the major lion characters are now voiced by black actors, turning Pride Rock into a kind of mini-Wakanda—Simba’s journey from guilty runaway to brave heir to the throne has a deeper resonance than it did when Matthew Broderick was the one redeeming the pride. But this is still an inherently conservative story, in the small-c sense of the word: an exiled prince returns to claim the power that is his by birth. At Beyoncé’s concerts, girls run the world; in The Lion King, they’re still helpmeets whose roles are to implore boys to come back and do it for them, though both Nala and Simba’s mother, Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), do get a third-act chance to kick some evil hyena butt.
This Lion King now has another political resonance that was absent from the 1990s version, one that Favreau, if he intended it at all, doesn’t stress too hard: The movie’s vision of a once-honorable empire being taken over by a corrupt and malevolent usurper will strike many Americans as having an undeniable ripped-from-the-headlines quality. When Scar consolidates his power by enlisting the protection of an army of hyena henchmen, it’s hard not to think of another luxuriously maned would-be dictator who relies on a pack of scavenging subordinates to carry out his vile commands. The bad guy’s final comeuppance, in the original, seemed almost too brutal for the ending of a Disney film. Twenty-five years later, it’s the only part of this hyper-realistic rendering I wished were even more graphic. Pairing off romantically to produce a legitimate heir to the throne is nice and all, but it’s getting destroyed by the minions of your own venal ambition that’s the real circle of life.