The live-action Lion King has critics pretty divided, which, if we’re being honest, probably won’t matter much to kids. Still, adults have to sit through this, so what’s going on? Some folks have said that the new Lion King succeeds in recapturing the magic of the 1994 animated classic, while others have come down hard on the idea that Disney has gone too far this time and this is an unnecessary remake lacking a soul. And yet, literally, everyone seems to agree that Timon and Pumbaa are the best part of the movie. Is it because Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are hilarious? Yes, but it’s deeper than that. The reason the new Eichner and Rogan versions of the wise-cracking warthog and meerkat are so memorable is that it’s pretty much the only thing about the new Lion King that feels new.
Indiewire‘s David Ehrlich hated The Lion King, but went out of the way to say that Simba’s sidekicks were “the life of the party.” Similarly, the AV Club’s A.A. Dowd gave The Lion King a D+ but even he couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm for Timon and Pumbaa, praising “their funny, possibly ad-libbed banter…” So, you can hate the new Lion King deeply, apparently, still love the old Lion King, and come out feeling like Timon and Pumbaa rock. This feels a little weird when you consider very likable superstars like Donald Glover and Beyoncé are in this movie, as you know, the leads. Plus, the original Timon and Pumbaa are already iconic characters, so it’s a bit shocking to hear this level of praise. What exactly makes these two characters the breakout stars of the live-action Lion King?
It’s actually simple. Eichner and Rogan are less constrained than their bigger co-stars; they’re doing new takes on these characters and not just impersonating Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella from the original cartoon. This isn’t to say Donald Glover and Beyoncé aren’t doing new things per se, it’s just that the thrust of the story gives them fewer creative choices. Meanwhile, Eichner has totally confirmed that he played Timon as gay, which, let’s face it, is pretty fucking wild.
One of the most frustrating parts of the new Lion King — similar to the other live-action Disney remakes — is how slavishly faithful it remains to the original animated movie. This is especially true when it comes to the vocal performances of the cast. None of this is meant as a criticism of the actors but rather a criticism of the film for underutilizing their talent. But, why hire someone like Beyoncé if you aren’t going to let her put her own stamp on the role? What is the point of paying Glover a massive sum without letting him bring his Emmy-winning talent to the role of Simba?
Having the majority of the cast go through the motions is safe but disappointing. And in contrast with this, Eichner and Rogen ad-libbing, feels absurdly fresh. They manage to stay true to what made the characters beloved in the first place while also bringing their own energy to the roles. In “Hakuna Matata,” rather than rehash the exact same decades-old fart censorship joke, they add a meta twist to it that gives the joke new life. The two are given the freedom to riff off each other and find a dynamic that is familiar without feeling stale.
All of this makes you wonder what the movie would have looked like if the rest of the cast would have been given the same loose freedom to find their own interpretation of their character. Sadly, it’s something we’ll never get to see, as Disney hedged its bets and delivered a paint-by-the-numbers movie that will leave many underwhelmed. But at least we have Timon and Pumbaa, reminding us all of what these movies could be if Disney dared to take a few more chances.
The Lion King is out now in wide release.