Review: The Lion King (2019)

Even more than Aladdin, this movie has created a lion’s share of mixed-to-negative critical reviews. After 2 weeks in theatres, the film currently sports a squashed, rotten tomato at a mere 53%, while audiences rated it much higher with a ripe 88%. I feel much closer to the audience score with this one, but there are several aspects of this “live-action” remake that need discussing. It did take a while for me to go see The Lion King and get around to reviewing it, so if you’re reading this post and have already seen it feel free to leave a comment below and share your thoughts!
The Lion King (1994) was easily my favorite Disney animated movie growing up. The music was easy and fun to sing along to, the rich characters were a great mix of scary and funny and stoic, and the story simply stood out among the other 90’s influx of Disney animation. I must say that even as a kid, I had decent taste in films 🙂 Everyone knows the plot of the film: Circle of Life…I Just Can’t Wait to Be King…Be Prepared…Hakuna Matata…Can You Feel the Love Tonight…Circle of Life. More or less. So I don’t feel the need to explain that much further, but instead I would like to point out some lesser-known facts about the film. 1) Elton John, who wrote the major soundtrack hits, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with Can You Feel the Love Tonight (not even the best song in the film…). 2) The movie has still, to this day, sold the most home-video copies, more than any other movie in history (~50 million). 3) The Disney “B-team” was responsible for creating the film since the “A-team” was working on Pocahontas; the team put together more than 1,000,000 film drawings and drew inspiration for both style and movement from studying wild animals. 4) Legen…wait for it…dary voice actor Frank Welker (Transformers, Scooby-Doo, Curious George, Futurama, Animaniacs, Duck Tales, Star Trek, The Smurfs….need I go on???) provided all the lion roars for the film, creating each one distinct to the character. He has provided voices in Hollywood animation for over 40 years, appearing in more than 90 films. 5) Jeremy Irons was the most notorious and prolific actor of the cast at the time, and nearly didn’t agree to work on the film for fear of jeopardizing the success he had in his career by working on a kid’s film; his superb acting while voicing Scar prompted the animation team to mimic his facial features in the animated lion.
So you can see why I hold the original in such high regard. And that makes it difficult for me to crown the remake as such a high achievement. Visually, it is stunning. Director Jon Favreau poured his heart into making this film, and it clearly shows through his attention to even the smallest details: a tuft of hair flying across the desert, the naturalistic movement of lions and hyenas, and every insect having their moment in the spotlight. His work on this remake is worth an award, very much like his work in The Jungle Book (2016). In addition to his directing efforts, the music really stands out as much in this film as it did in the original. Donald Glover (Simba) and Beyoncé (Nala), already highly recognized and accomplished musicians, are phenomenal in their castings. Their rendition of Can You Feel the Love Tonight brings some much-needed life to the remake. Similarly, Glover alongside Billy Eichner (Timon) and Seth Rogan (Pumba) in Hakuna Matata is sooooo good. They really riff on the original song and make it their own. But this brings me to my main qualm with the film….there wasn’t enough of that: taking the original story and adding to it. Creating something that feels distinctly it’s own. Favreau did this wonderfully in The Jungle Book, and recently I think that Aladdin found similar success. But, outside of the music, The Lion King just finds itself stuck in the rut of shot-for-shot, struggling to find new cinematic heights.
The only characters who I recognized as distinctly having evolved were Timon and Pumba. Much like the original, wherein voice actors Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were paired together because of their auditioning performances, Eichner and Rogan seem to create an entirely nuanced feeling of these two iconic animated characters. They pair together perfectly and easily have the best lines, including some meta-comments and throwbacks to the original film. Although most other characters were voiced by new actors (it’s difficult to find a reason not to reprise James Earl Jones as Mufasa…who else could pull off that voice?!?), I didn’t feel like together they brought as much to the 2019 table. Whereas the original cast members were chosen for what they could bring to the roles, not all characters were given the same priority in this film. Several actors just seem thrown into the cast for their recent fame or to put butts in seats. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is very similar to the original, although a bit less diabolical and more tortured. His shortened version of Be Prepared was also a bit of a letdown, which was apparently attributed to his singing voice being not a great fit. Young and old Simba and Nala are given very similar dialogue and roles to play, apart from the tense scene of Nala making her escape from Pride Rock. I will say though, there was a notable difference in the hyenas as this time around they were less funny and more terrifying, becoming a better compliment to the plotting character of Scar.
In all, the emotions that I assumed going into the theatre would be completely absent from the realistic animal faces were not entirely missing. There were moments where it was clear what feeling the character had or was trying to evoke from the audience. However, while watching the film, I still very much missed the countless hours of hand-drawn imagery that evoked a staggering emotional scale, even as a child. Seeing young Simba’s eyes widen in fear at the approaching stampede, and the sexy grin of Nala as she and Simba rekindle their friendship in the forest (oh yeah, I went there). This time around the team took the liberty to fill in minor details but failed to add much to the story, including very few bold new changes to characters and plot. This remake is not the worst of Disney’s latest attempts, in fact I’d throw it up near the top for realism and musical quality, but it’s difficult to measure it up against the 1994 film, whereas others have met or surpassed their original versions. If you haven’t seen it yet, I do suggest finding the time because the imagery is stunning. But if you have kids, do them a favor and remind them of the magic of the original film 🙂 Thanks for reading, cheers!

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