Ready for a hot take? I don’t always love animated films. Give me the crappy cut-out look of South Park or the gloriously fluid old school Looney Tunes shorts, but otherwise, I sometimes feel like my eyes are bleeding. I don’t mean to take anything away from the incredibly talented artisans who have brought so much joy and wonder to the world. It’s an eyeball thing. Speaking of which, I also don’t like the eyeballs on Disney characters. They’re so big and round and sweet. I think I know one person in the world with eyes like that and everyone calls him Aladdin, but it’s not really a compliment. Everyone else I know squints and looks dead inside. Maybe I need new friends, or maybe I’m just cranky.
All of this is to say that despite the cries that Hollywood operates at a bankrupt creative standstill, that cash grabs represent the new normal filled with remakes and reboots, and that cynical decisions only occur on days that end in “Y”, I don’t necessarily hate that Disney has decided to churn out “live action” versions of their classic animated films. As much as I loved the original 1994 The Lion King, a CGI, photorealistic update sounded like something I could watch without experiencing a cavalcade of onion tears. I may be alone with this strange affliction of mine, but audiences have sure turned up to see something they’ve pretty much seen before.
I enjoyed director Jon Favreau’s update of The Jungle Book, but my expectations were truly low for this one. Using Hamlet as its template, the original film beautifully told the tale of Simba, a young lion who when banished from his pride by his evil Uncle Scar, goes on a journey to discover the importance of standing firm for those you love and realizing your destiny. The Elton John/Tim Rice songs, while sappy as hell at times, could not be more memorable, and who can resist that commanding drum beat and cut to the title card at the very end of “The Circle Of Life”? When that baboon holds Simba up to his adoring animal kingdom, it’s one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time.
Yet there I sat, expecting the worst. Had I hated the film I was going to title my review, “The Circle Of Lifelessness”. I expected a pointless remake with expressionless creatures moving their lips to dialogue, but what I experienced instead, while problematic in terms of pacing issues and one particularly not great vocal performance, truly entertained and delighted me. The Lion King 2.0: No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) not only provided me with a more palatable way to view the same story, but it updated it just enough to make it a little more relevant and a whole lot gayer.
Ok, if you’re one of those millions of moms who don’t have a gay child, or don’t know anyone with a gay child, or you’re just a closed-minded, out of touch gorgon, you need to calm down. The new film isn’t outwardly gay, but much like placing Paul Lynde dead center on Hollywood Squares or Charles Nelson Reilly in the top right tier on Match Game, The Lion King has traded in a perfectly wonderful and gay Nathan Lane as Timon the Meerkat for the truly hilarious, scene-stealing and equally gay Billy Eichner. It’s the equivalent of going from Will & Grace’s Jack to Bianca Del Rio of Rupaul’s Drag Race fame. The quips feel way more 2019, more biting, nihilistic, dystopian, the world is ending, in a Years And Years is so dead-on kind of way! And yes, even though Timon and his BFF warthog friend Pumbaa (a perfect Seth Rogen) aren’t technically a ‘shipworthy couple we would call Timbaa, make no mistake, Timon is a gay homosexual and Eichner gives one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in ages. Evidently, he improvised many of his lines, including my favorite as he arrives at a Pride Rock which has been left barren by Scar and his pack of hyenas, “Talk about a fixer-upper. I think you went heavy on the carcass.” I think Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk should start taking notes! All of this is to say that Eichner elevates what could have been the draggy second act of the film and sends it into the comedy stratosphere.
The pacing, at times, does suffer. Without the benefit of jaunty animation, watching animals traversing the savanna gets a little cumbersome, and the facial expressions of the characters don’t carry emotions in the same way. I actually preferred the new version. I had no problems deciphering their feelings, and, in fact, I found their edgier looks a better match for our current mood. It’s as if the animals, no longer living in a pre-9/11, pre-Trump world, know we humans have messed everything up and they’re deadly serious and seriously pissed off. Welcome to The Lion King 2.0: The Larry David Version!
As for the performances, Eichner and Rogen aside, we also get a strong turn from John Oliver as Zazu, the flittering hornbill. Chiwetel Ejiofor, while no Jeremy Irons, makes Scar a terrifying Iago, although his famous, “You have no idea” moment doesn’t work as well here since the original was a callback to Irons’ unforgettable line in his Oscar winning Reversal Of Fortune. James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa, because nobody can ever replace him. Do you hear me, Morgan Freeman? Nobody! Not even you! And you’re the Voice of God! Beyonce acquits herself quite well as Nala, as does Shahadi Wright Joseph as the younger version. Young Simba couldn’t be more adorable and heart-melting. Try not to go “Awww” when he attempts his first roar. JD MCrary exudes utter cuteness here, especially during his number, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, but then, unfortunately the movie flatlines when Donald Glover takes over as his grown-up counterpart. He sounds half asleep and fairly bland in the big duet, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” or whenever reciting lines. I’m suspecting it’s an actor’s choice to internalize the guilt and shame Simba experienced as a toddler and turn into a self-serious, lumbering bore, but it’s not enough to sink a film with such fantastic moments as “Hakuna Matata” or the on-the-beat stomping we revel in during “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
Technically, the photorealism may resemble a National Geographic special, but with better lip-syncing, yet I did find myself missing the darker qualities of the glowing-eyed hyenas and the elephant graveyard from the original. The wildebeest stampede looks real, which somehow isn’t half as scary as a hand-drawn interpretation. We get more daylight in the new film, making me yearn for the inky blacks of animation. In either version, however, we enter quasi-religious Aslan territory when Simba speaks to his dead father in the clouds. That kind of corniness doesn’t quite land the way it did in the early 90s.
Despite its flaws, it’s a stirring, impressive film. It may not have the most urgent reason for existing in that it pretty much trades in one kind of beauty for another, but Billy Eichner is worth the price of admission alone. Timon may ping on the same old gay best friend character tropes we’ve known for so long, but it’s still a fresh take. He may yell a lot, but he infuses it with kindness and some genuine affection for his big, dopey friend Pumbaa. We could all use a little more Billy in our lives right now.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Lion King gets a 25 out of 50. Timon may not wear a rainbow flag, but he’s the one you’d sidle up next to one night at a gay bar to get his take on everything from the disappointing final moments of the Big Little Lies Season Two finale to Aaron Schock’s sartorial choices.
By Glenn Gaylord
The Lion King is playing in every single theater in the world right now. Every single one.