More than two years before Disney released its polarizing “Lion King” remake, the world got a preview of just how well its new Zazu and Timon might sound together comedically.
The clip was from the network-hopping series “Billy on the Street,” in which star/host Billy Eichner peppers New York pedestrians with rapid-fire questions, and in 2017, the show featured HBO’s John Oliver for a segment titled, “Do Gay People Care About John Oliver?” (Short answer: Not near as much as they care about Wendy Williams.)
As the tall, New York-born Eichner and the shorter British transplant Oliver swiftly sought answers, deft comic improvisation was on full display — which brings us smack back to Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King.”
If there is a peril to remaking an animated Disney masterpiece a quarter-century later partly for the sake of exploring photorealistic animation, it is that the technological push swallows the soul of the thing.
Donald Glover is given a bit of musical room to bring his ample gifts to voicing the new movie’s adult Simba, and James Earl Jones, reprising his Mufasa role, seems to deliver even deeper line readings this go-round when intoning his wisdom from the great beyond.
Yet Eichner, as the freewheeling meerkat Timon, and Oliver, as the tightly wound hornbill Zazu, frequently infuse the movie with the most comic joy — perhaps because they were given the most latitude to do so.
The story might be a leonine twist on “Hamlet,” but that doesn’t mean the critically drubbed remake must stick to the original script like it’s Shakespeare. Viewers are already enduring photo-CGI animals that cannot possibly squash, stretch and emote like their hand-drawn counterparts. In the new movie, not allowing enough room for the light of improv — or at least new dialogue — sometimes makes Pride Rock seem as grim as the Shadowlands.
So it’s a welcome boon when Eichner especially nails his familiar lines as well as his new ones, such as when commenting on a devastated, Scar-led land that is “heavy on the carcass.” In the original, Nathan Lane effectively leaned into a delivery that made it sound as if Timon had come to the savanna by way of the Catskills. Eichner, by contrast, seems to project a character with both more brio and sensitivity.
Oliver, too, artfully finds tonal colors within the comic banter. And when as royal adviser, Zazu gives his pun-laced morning report to Mufasa, the meta-humor pays off: The actor is clearly nodding to his satiric newscaster from “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
Disney has been accused of trotting our remakes as billion-dollar cash grabs, and lesser efforts like this year’s “Dumbo” don’t help the modern Imagineers’ defense.
Yet the better Disney remakes and adaptations, like “Maleficent,” bring something genuinely new to the table. Viewers can hope that Disney will learn a lesson from the new “Lion King,” even as the movie races to $543 million in global gross — giving the Mouse House five of the seven biggest movies of the year, including the remake “Aladdin” ($989 million).
Let that remake lesson be: Make sure to bring in some fresh and lively dialogue, and not so heavy on the dramatic carcass.
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