Oh, “The Lion King”. I have such a soft spot in my heart for this film. Growing up it was the first animated feature I truly fell in love with and it’s my favorite animated Disney film. This movie offered so much that helped it stand out in the Disney Renaissance. It provided one of the greatest cinematic openings of all time, an iconic soundtrack, incredible art and animation, memorable characters including one of the most popular Disney villains of all time, and some of the most resilient life lessons and themes any Disney movie has ever offered. It is an undeniable classic even in spite of its comparisons to “Kimba: The White Lion” which remains really the one constant blemish to its credibility. With Disney now completely sold on remaking many of its classics in live-action, it was inevitable that one of the greatest cinematic achievements in Disney’s library would get its own remake. I was cautiously optimistic. As a huge fan of the original film the allure of seeing my favorite characters and songs adapted to live-action really did bring me right in and for the first time I felt the same kind of excitement many Disney fans have felt seeing their favorites brought to the big screen in a new way. I’ll admit I was completely on board with the project defending it around every turn. So how well did this live-action retelling live up to my lofty expectations and the legacy of its famed predecessor? Well, let’s just say it’s a fine lesson to all of us to be careful what we’re willing to settle for in the world of film. This is my review of “The Lion King” live-action remake.
Released to coincide with “The Lion King’s” 25th anniversary, the remake follows the same basic formula and story as its animated predecessor. Directed by John Favreau, who also brought the much improved “The Jungle Book” remake to the big screen, “The Lion King” utilizes ultra-realistic CGI to bring the characters to life without the use of real living animals. The film follows Simba (played at a young age by JD McCrary and at an older age by Donald Glover) who is the heir to the kingship of the Pride Lands. One morning his father Mufasa, played again by James Earl Jones who voiced the character in the original film, teaches Simba that he is destined to rule over the kingdom. However Simba serves as a roadblock for Mufasa’s treacherous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who seeks to usurp both Mufasa and Simba to take the throne. Scar teams with a pack of hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) who also seeks to bring down Mufasa for his obsessive control of the hunting grounds. When Scar puts his ultimate plan into action the story follows the same beats as the animated feature and Simba must eventually team with his love interest and best friend Nala (Beyoncé) the meerkat and warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan respectively), majordomo hornbill Zazu (John Oliver) and shaman Rafiki (John Kani) to retake the Pride Lands and defeat his uncle for the right to rule.
So, where do I start with this movie? Oh boy, it’s bad. It’s just uncalled for is what it is. Don’t get me wrong it has some merit that I will acknowledge along the way, but it’s just not the same. A lot of times feeling underwhelmed by a film can be caused by overhyping it and setting your expectations too high. But this is “The Lion King”! It’s a remake of one of the greatest and most beloved animated movies of all time. Why wouldn’t anyone expect greatness from it? To have a final product that feels so underwhelming just feels insulting to me as a fan and to the original movie. It’s not like this remake didn’t have promise. It had some great vocal talent behind the characters and songs and an accomplished directed in Jon Favreau who successfully brought “The Jungle Book” to the big screen which I enjoyed so much more than the original animated version. This is the director that proved, to me at least, that maybe Disney was onto something with its live-action obsession and that while their animated classics were great the live-action retellings allowed for more in-depth and maybe darker elements of the stories to be told. “The Lion King” barely touches on that potential offering the bare minimum of anything new or interesting while also failing to capture the imagination and magic of its predecessor.
That’s not to imply there’s nothing redeemable about this movie. While not quite as polished or believable as “The Jungle Book”, “The Lion King” does make an impressive effort to bring our favorite characters to fully realized life. While they’re quite obviously not real animals it’s still neat to see Simba, Rafiki, Pumbaa and company represented as more realistic interpretations of their real-life animal counterparts. But while the presentation is kind of neat and eye-catching, the CGI feels oddly limited. While the animated version allowed for expressive facial features because, well, it’s animation so the possibilities are limited only to the imagination of the animator, the effects and character models here take almost all of the emotion out of every scene. There’s little expression in the eyes, very rarely do the mouths adjust to even form a smile, and while the movements are somewhat impressively detailed the animated film felt more fluid and livelier than the film that’s SUPPOSED to be representing a live-action world. And because we can’t tell what anyone is feeling through their expressions we need to depend on poor line readings (more on that later) which sucks what little emotion is left out of even the most devastating parts of the film. The big death scene (which you all know but I won’t reveal here because I don’t want to be yelled out for spoiling it for that one person who went into this without seeing the original first) is completely neutered. There’s no feeling, no emotion, nothing at all. The animated version captured this moment with so much more heart making it feel like a legitimate tragedy. Even still today it gets me choked up watching it at home. But here it did nothing for me. It just happens and then we move on hitting beat after beat of pandering, repetitive storytelling to please our simple expectations.
And really that describes this film perfectly. It’s a retelling of an already amazing movie and does very little to try and be anything but that. It’s a pandering mess that wants only to give us what we’ve already seen with minimal alterations to the story. But the sad part, as you’ll learn reading on, it even takes away from some of the depth of the original film in the process. Overall it does little to earn or justify its existence. More than any live-action remake before it this is clearly made to get our money because Disney knew the popularity of the source material would get us in the seats. That’s it. It feels like a phoned-in mess too afraid to try new things but too comfortable to truly capture what was already so fascinating about this story. Let me put it this way. There’s an extra 20 minutes or so added to the runtime when compared to the original movie and after viewing it I had no idea why or even how. There’s a little more time given to the mouse Scar grabs at the beginning, a strange what I assume to be attempt at driving home the circle of life idea that ends with a dung beetle rolling around a turd-ball filled with Simba’s hair, and Timon and Pumbaa’s singing of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is extended. Offhand that’s really all the major new footage added to the live-action movie that I remember that was missing from the animated film. It’s almost insulting how closely this movie tries to stick to the original without trying much of anything new and STILL messes it up by removing some pretty iconic moments (again more on that later).
And you know what makes it more insulting? The acting. More than pretty much anything else in this feature the acting feels the most phoned-in and that is the true insult this film has to offer. Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick, two actors who are the butts of numerous jokes of bland performing while still being famous, came together to create a much more memorable Simba than JD McCrary and Donald Glover ever even try to accomplish in this film. Beyoncé is practically invisible in this movie because you can barely tell the lionesses apart and she’s given so little significant dialogue that until someone addresses her as Nala you don’t even know who she is. John Oliver barely reaches Rowan Atkinson’s charm from the original, and even James Earl Jones, who PLAYED Mufasa before, sounds like he’s basically in it for the paycheck. His original performance is so much more sincere and commanding than what he offers here. Most of the cast sounds like someone told them “just do your best, it doesn’t have to be good because we know people are going to see this whether they like it or not”. Very few characters brought me into the film and almost none ever match the quality of the original voice cast’s performances…although there are a few exceptions.
Chiwetel Ejiofor for one is an incredible Scar. While he’s no Jeremy Irons, he perfectly captures the devious nature of the villain and, thanks to some of the VERY few new elements of this movie, his backstory and plan are a little more developed to give us more context behind his actions that the animated film didn’t touch on. Ironically Scar was one of the elements I expected to hate going into this movie so good on Ejiofor for earning my respect there. Timon and Pumbaa do steal the show the same way they did in the animated version. While Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan still sound like they’re not completely into it, they’re at least trying and thanks to a few fun fourth-wall breaks referencing the fact that this is a remake they provide some of the very few highlight moments of the movie that had me chuckling. Even then most of their best moments are simply reminders that the first film exists which makes for some fun nostalgia but only adds to the overall insult this movie represents.
Finally, there’s the music…God how did they screw this up? I will admit that hearing the songs I loved as a child on the big screen (seeing as I never got to see the original in a movie theater) was a lot of fun. I sang along to every song and to an extent the soundtrack did accomplish every live-action remake’s goal of feeding into the viewer’s nostalgia. “The Circle of Life” (with a shot for shot retread of the famous animated opening), “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” are all included along with a new song by Beyoncé called “Spirit” that serves as the essential original track for a Disney remake to sell a remade classic soundtrack. Despite the familiarity of the music none of these modern takes on the songs are in any way better than the original film. There’s a lot of over embellishment in the singing which makes the artist feel self-important and come off like they’re trying too hard to be better than the original soundtrack and, similar to the “Aladdin” remake, a lot of times the music feels out of place. Now the transitions in the animated film weren’t always that smooth either, but in live-action, it’s very noticeable that songs are there for the sake of being there. In fact, it’s creepy how similarly mishandled “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “A Whole New World”, the most iconic tracks from “The Lion King’ and “Aladdin” respectively, really are. Twice now in 2019 we’ve seen Disney completely botch two of their most cherished musical ballads, making them afterthoughts instead of integral parts of their respective stories.
And then there’s the biggest musical sin…the complete and utter demolishing of “Be Prepared”, Scar’s iconic and beloved villain song. The live-action version only lasts maybe a solid minute at most and is comprised more of Scar talking than singing as he brings the hyenas in on his plan. While understanding that the imagery used in the animated version during this number was probably not appropriate for a modern crowd if the imagery doesn’t work or the lyrics don’t work it’s okay to modernize them and change them. Completely cutting out most of the song, relinquishing Scar of one of his best moments, and in a movie that made minimal attempts to add to its story or plot, felt like an unnecessary attempt to satisfy the very small minority of viewers who MAYBE see the first movie as having gone a bit too far in that musical number. And it’s not even the only scene that gets completely undercut. Not only is the scene where adult Simba gets to talk to his dad so much less impactful than the animated version, but the exchange between Simba and Rafiki talking about how “the past is the past” and “you can run from it or learn from it” is GONE!! It’s just completely GONE! One of the best scenes in the original movie…GONE…cut for no apparent reason thus making Rafiki less important and Simba’s life lessons much less developed than in the animated movie. The live-action film actually takes a step BACK in what Simba learns from his experiences and completely ignores one of the original film’s most integral and lasting themes of learning from the past instead of letting it control you. I’m so happy we cut that scene out to give us a few more minutes with a dung beetle.
I could go on and on about this movie. It actually makes me physically frustrated how bland this product turned out to be. Sure, it has its moments. Timon and Pumbaa are still show-stealers and Scar actually feels on par with the original film with his plan and motives just a tad more fleshed out. Even the music is fun nostalgia at worst and the CGI is pretty impressive. But there’s so much more wrong than there is right. A remake is supposed to improve on its predecessor or add to it. Sure, a lot of times it goes wrong, but many times it can go right. “Beauty and the Beast” polished many inconsistencies in the original. “Maleficent” and “Alice in Wonderland”, while not great movies, tried something different with the property. “Aladdin” helped its princess become a bigger part of the narrative. “Dumbo” modernized the story with newer themes and ideas. This movie does NONE of that. Other than polishing out Scar’s story, which you could argue was just fine in the original, it offers nothing new, nothing memorable, and nothing superior to the previous movie making it possibly the most unnecessary and uninspired of all the Disney’s remakes. The only reason I enjoyed it was the nostalgia which left me actually longing to watch the original movie once I left the theater to remind myself why I enjoyed “The Lion King” in the first place. That’s something a remake should NEVER leave you longing to do, BUT with that said we will always have the original animated film to fall back on. The superior effort filled with heart, fun, color, emotion, and some truly epic moments that still remain iconic today. If nothing else this modern take serves as a reason to experience the animated film again because this new take is certainly not worthy of the same respect.