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‘The Lion King’: Cursed by the Uncanny Valley? No, Blessed by the Uncanny Chiwetel Ejiofor (Column)

I’m astonished that people are having an uncanny-valley problem with Disney’s live-action version of “The Lion King.” Characters like Simba and Mufasa have been described as having “dead eyes,” but I saw the movie well before I heard any of those complaints, and their eyes seemed utterly expressive and alive to me. Besides, the characters are meant to look like real animals, who don’t over-emote.

That, you could argue, is the essential difference between the new “Lion King” and the original. The 1994 version was an anthropomorphic cartoon in the classic Disney tradition of cuddly facial elasticity; the characters wore every thought and feeling on their beastly but really entirely humanoid features. In the live-action version, which is, of course, nearly as much of an animated film (it’s just a different kind of animated film), the characters have a photo-realist splendor that’s (intentionally) more deadpan, and that allows us to imagine, that much more, that they’re wild animals. That’s why the film’s vocal performances strike us on a different wavelength.

In a conventional cartoon, the voices complete the visual expressiveness of the drawings. In the new “Lion King,” the voices come closer to having the quality of inner voices. And nowhere does that prove more effective than in the searingly powerful performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. I didn’t necessarily like the new “Lion King” more than the original (or less), but I responded to it in a different way, and Ejiofor’s acting defines what’s transporting — and novel — about the current film.

He has always been a magnificent actor, and a total chameleon, from the ebullient drag queen of “Kinky Boots” to the silently suffering, transcendently expressive victim-hero of “12 Years a Slave.” But in the six years since that Oscar-winning landmark, Ejiofor hasn’t had an opportunity to give the kind of populist performance that connects to an audience in a mythic way. He does it in “The Lion King.”

His Scar raises the film’s dramatic stakes, upping the ante on what Jeremy Irons did as Scar in the 1994 version. Irons was silky, amused, decadent, conniving. But Ejiofor, who has said that he based his performance on the title role of “MacBeth,” turns Scar’s deviousness into something more wounded and malevolent. As a result of the film’s realism, the slash across his face, which came from the fight in which Scar tried to kill (but was defeated by) his brother, Mufasa, hits us in a more graphic way, and so does Scar’s physique — his emaciated manginess. He wears his depression and defeat on his face and body, and Ejiofor plays him with a mellifluous, deep-voiced simmer of anger that suggests a tragedy of distorted nobility. In the first encounter between Scar and Mufasa, when Mufasa dresses him down, we actually feel bad for Scar — for how low he’s fallen.

Ejiofor creates a fully rounded character, sympathetic at times, but fraught with peril. Scar doesn’t just scheme, he covets, with a thirst for power and vengeance that’s a kind of bottomless pit. As in Shakespeare, it’s his humanity that brings his monstrousness to bear, transforming him into a killer. You could say that Ejiofor plays the audience in much the same way that Scar manipulates those around him, especially Simba. He’s a liar who hides his violence, and when it comes out, Ejiofor endows him with a vibratory danger that’s dark-edged and terrifying. The scene in which he confronts Mufasa, holding him at the top of a cliff, is a dramatic epiphany, as charged as the climax of any thriller — and, to be honest, more potentially traumatizing for children than anything in “Bambi” and the 1994 “Lion King” combined. I decided, as soon as I saw that scene, not to take my 6-year-old daughter to the movie, yet the intensity of that moment is hardly a flaw. It elevates “The Lion King” into a timely parable of a lost hero, Simba, who must defeat the fear in himself to save his society from a plundering sociopath.

Speaking of which, there have been rumblings that the new “Lion King” is too “hierarchical” in its vision of a leonine-led animal kingdom. Which makes me wonder: Are we really going to go there? “There” being the application of the kind of kneejerk leftist-grad-student thinking that can be applied, if you work hard enough, to three out four mainstream American movies throughout history. The hierarchy, the uncanny valley — all of it feels like code for attacking Disney as the New Oppressive Empire. I bow to no one in my dislike of just about all of Disney’s live-action remakes of its animated classics, but “The Lion King” has a humanistic spirit that transcends those earlier films. The characters, through their images and voices, have presence. And none more so than Ejiofor’s Scar, who shows you what it looks like when anger and cunning and agony and ego melt into a roar of wrath.

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