ST. LOUIS — One of the virtues of seeing a lot of movies is being able to differentiate between a cash grab and a true work of intent and need. The tell-tale signs aren't hard to spot, and the ideas can't hide under a disguise of a thin coat of paint, the same ways a true artist making a movie that lived in their bones can't be denied.
When Jon Favreau made the wonderful indie, Chef, I could tell it was part business and part therapeutic. He had to do that movie. When it comes to his remake of Disney's The Lion King, all I see is a bank vault opening to collect more money. It's impossible to miss.
The story is easy to recall. The young cub, Simba (here voiced by Donald Glover), is the heir to the throne of the large chunk of land ruled over by his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, back in the saddle). There's a bad uncle, an unfortunate stampede, exile, and a return to prominence. Blah, blah, and yawn.
The Lion King is two hours long and I felt the full brunt of the final 85 minutes. Like a relentless thunderstorm in St. Louis these days. For around a half hour, the film's slick new live action look, aka fancy animation, was satisfying and even nice to the eye. The first couple tunes sung weren't terrible, and Jones' timeless ability to breathe life into a stale product kept the hope alive that this wasn't going to be as bad as Will Smith's bad accent in Aladdin.
And then it happened suddenly. The interest level dropped about as quickly as Scar's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) alliance to his family, and the blatant attempts at humor and modern updating of classy material was shoved into my face. The commercial pulls of studios like Disney, currently making a wager for your soul as well as every product in Hollywood, comes off as a vicious stink inside a theater.
The crowd I watched it with, a group of friends, helped turn the theater into Mystery Science Theater. We all took turns taking our shots, knowing full well the movie would make a boatload of money this weekend as it was unveiled in 4,700 theaters. Yes, when a very expensive movie isn't good, it's okay for people giving their time and/or money to it throwing shade at it. Somehow, I think Disney can handle it as they swim around their push the millions of dollars away from their eyes. It's like someone making a fuss about throwing an insult at Starbucks.
The Lion King, like many remakes recently, didn't need to happen. It's arbitrary in the worst way. There's nothing truly added to the material, no updated soul or vibe. It came, sat down, got up, and left my mind. All I could think about as I left the theater was the cup of coffee I was going to need to work my job after the movie tired me out.
I can see why Favreau wanted to do it. He made a real score with Jungle Book and has been making these kid-oriented flicks for many years. It's his bread and butter. This isn't his best division of work, though. The smaller films he's made, like Chef, are where the heart is. Those exist for a reason, and you can tell.
The Lion King remake, as my friend Korian put it bluntly, is a soulless cash grab. Watch the original instead.