Disney’s Lion King remake leaves audiences with more déjà vu than nostalgia

Photo courtesy of Disney Studios / Associated Press. This image features Simba and Zazu, a red-billed hornbill who serves as Mufasa’s major domo and Simba’s caretaker in Disney’s The Lion King.

Everything’s been pretty much up to date in the Pride Lands since 1994, when Disney’s “The Lion King” animation made its national debut. Twenty-five years, six Tony Awards and $8.1 billion worldwide later, the live musical has captured the planet’s imagination with its lore surrounding the sprawling kingdom, inhabited by numerous species of animals that epitomize the abundance of life that originally existed in the African savannah.

Even as the wildlife flourish on the benevolent Lion King Mufasa’s watch, the Pride Lands’ tranquility faces a new threat, this time in the form of an overhyped live-action Disney movie that grossed an astonishing $185 million in North America over the just-passed opening weekend, bringing its two-week worldwide total to $531 million (that mark already more than doubles its $250 million budget and includes $98 million from Chinese audiences).

The film grossed the ninth highest opening revenue ever and the most for a July opening and for a PG-rated entry.

Everything comes out in the wash the way it does in the original — in fact, that’s part of the problem here. For all its colossal technical prowess and a positively magnificent score by the great Hans Zimmer, the film loses a good deal in the translation, not the least of which involves its rock-ribbed obsession with the original story and an absolutely dreadful showing by the key subtext character.

While no careers are at stake, the A-list cast may eventually sigh with some regret over its connection with a project whose final product is maybe too realistic for its own good.

Indeed, the villainous Scar (voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor) hasn’t changed a bit as he cajoles, plots and maneuvers his way into Pride Lands leadership — amid a wildebeest stampede, he’ll murder his brother Musafa (James Earl Jones in a reprise of his role in the animation) and persuade Simba (Donald Glover), Musafa’s young son and rightful heir, that he’s at fault and must run from the Pride Lands in shame.

The years see Simba mature under the influence of warthog Pumbaa and meerkat Timon (Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner), whose mantra “hakuna matata” (Swahili for “there are no troubles”) marks their slaphappy worldview. Soon enough, the three will be corralled by Simba’s lifelong love interest Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), who reports that Scar’s army of hyenas has devastated the Pride Lands and that Simba must return home to live or die with his kin.

Only after a concerted counsel with the wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani) does Simba acknowledge that Mufasa, and all the good he stood for, lives in him. His return to the Pride Lands features the true story behind Mufasa’s death and a fight to the end with Scar, who meets his doom in a fall from Pride Rock. The Circle of Life takes it from there; in time, the Pride Lands are restored to their former glory, with Simba mirroring Musafa’s goodness and compassion roar for roar.

It’s important to note that director Jon Favreau has captured Pumbaa and Timon’s comic-relief clout to a T. Rogen’s blithe affectations and Eichner’s vaguely effeminate self-importance couldn’t be funnier as they overlap (“Talk about a fixer-upper,” Timon says. “I think you went heavy on the carcass”) — you can tell these two have been together all their lives, and Simba’s decidedly lucky to have met them when he did.

The bigger picture also weighs in with its own irony. Lions and hyenas have been mortal enemies since the dawn of time; the fact that Scar would recruit them speaks to the freak of nature that is his heart.

But my, such pigheaded devotion to the original’s plot, almost as though the film needs to rely on it for its inspiration. The designers won’t so much as consider the great outdoors the main character it is; meanwhile, they’ve entirely overlooked Rafiki as the catalyst of Simba’s rebirth. His delightful Xhosa-driven clicks of the tongue are gone, as is his critical musical number that exhorts Simba’s return. In its place is a lame, “He lives in you,” which panders to Simba’s intelligence and packs all the punch of a Pride Lands tiger den (Africa, see, has virtually no tigers).

This film lacks both the imagination of the musical and the spontaneity of the animation. It’s a cautious, soulless entry whose best angels lie in its slavish devotion to its great technological appeal —meanwhile, the animals couldn’t care less.

The movie is showing at the Regal Parkway Plaza, 405 Parkway Plaza in El Cajon, the Regal Edwards Rancho San Diego, 2951 Jamacha Road in El Cajon, and at the Reading Cinemas Grossmont, 5500 Grossmont Center in La Mesa.