In news that will surprise exactly nobody: I didn’t like this remake of The Lion King. I historically haven’t liked any of the recent Disney “live-action” remakes, but I dislike this one for reasons that are different to why I didn’t like the others. But first, it’s important to note that I was never on the hype train for the original version of The Lion King. Sure, it’s a wonderfully enjoyable movie with a killer soundtrack, but it wasn’t notably better than any of the other films from that era of the Disney Rennaissance. It had all the usual problems found in those movies: odd pacing, a saggy middle, and supporting characters and villains that ended up far more interesting than the main character. But it was still very well done, featured some stellar animation, and was full of heart. All of what made the original Lion King a classic is gone in this photo-realistic CGI remake (I refuse to call it a live-action remake because none of this movie was filmed live; it was all done in a computer so it’s every bit as animated as the original version was, just with a different form of animation). Instead, we’re left with some pretty impressive looking CGI animals that are devoid of any life or heart and a movie that hews so closely to the original that it begs the question: why bother making this at all?
The Lion King (written by Jeff Nathanson, directed by Jon Favreau)
From Disney Live Action, director Jon Favreau’s all-new “The Lion King” journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born. Simba (JD McCrary as a child; Donald Glover as an adult) idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother-and former heir to the throne-has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends (Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner), Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.
Whenever you remake a movie, you have to walk a pretty fine line: you don’t wanna change too much because then it might cease to be recognizable as the thing you’re remaking but you also don’t wanna be too slavish to the source material because then it feels like there was no point in making the remake. This is a conversation we end up having with every Disney “live-action” remake, but usually, it’s because whatever changes they’ve made have been poorly executed/not particularly well thought out. In Aladdin, for example, the changes they made to Jasmine’s storyline stuck out like a sore thumb because they were never fully executed and, instead, felt like lazy, half-baked ideas coupled with a new song that didn’t sound similar to any of the other songs in the movie. In The Lion King, we have to have this conversation because the film changed so little from the original movie that it’s an honest crime that the original screenwriters aren’t credited as writing this movie as this script is 95% the original script and 5% lines that were ad-libbed by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. So little was changed in this remake that you often find yourself wondering why you’re even bothering to watch it as it frequently fails to match the heights set by the original film – which it begs comparison to as it remakes some sequences shot-by-shot.
As such, it’s hard to criticize any aspect of this film’s story as it’s exactly the same story we’ve already seen, with all of its problems and successes. There is some new dialogue (mostly from the hyenas (played by Eric Andre and Keegan Michael Key) and Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen) and two new scenes, both set in the Pride Lands between “Hakuna Matata” and adult Simba and Nala’s(Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) reunion (one showing Scar as a creepy incel character who really wants Sarabi to be his wife, the other a wholly unnecessary scene showing how Nala escapes the Pride Lands to find Simba). Otherwise, it’s exactly the same as the original movie that we’ve all already seen numerous times. Bizarrely, this remake is nearly a full half-hour longer than the original but I can’t identify any new material other than the previously mentioned ad-libbed lines and the two or three completely disposable (and not particularly long) new scenes. Maybe the ad-libbing added up to a fair amount of new material, but it’s so spread out that it never feels like you’re watching anything substantially different to what you’ve already seen. And, to be fair, I understand the idea that if it’s not broken, there’s no need to fix it but when it comes to remaking a movie, if you’re just gonna make the exact same movie, why make it? You should make some changes or do things a bit different, but you should also make sure those changes are well thought out, properly executed, and that they elevate the material instead of bringing it down.
What is different, of course, is the style of animation. The 1994 version of The Lion King was done in traditional, hand-drawn 2-D animation. This remake was done in photorealistic CGI animation. All due respect to the CGI animators who animated this remake, but the animation just doesn’t work for the story. On the one hand, it is a technical marvel at how realistic these animals look throughout the entirety of the film. On the other hand, they are so realistic that every time one of them talks, your brain is immediately sent into the uncanny valley as English words just look wrong being spoken by such life-like animals. We all know that real lions don’t talk so our brains are unable to make that suspension of disbelief when we’re looking at something that’s otherwise extremely lifelike. Additionally, the extreme realism used in the facial expressions of the animals doesn’t really lend itself to very expressive faces. All of the characters pretty much have the exact same expression the entire movie, whether they’re happy or sad. I understand this may be realistic (although I’ve seen some pretty expressive animals) but it doesn’t make for visually interesting characters. Especially when some of the actors are giving fairly emotional performances while the facial expressions of their animated characters don’t come anywhere near matching those emotions. It just creates a disconnect that wasn’t there in the original version. This CGI is beautiful on a technical level, but on an emotional level, it’s utterly cold and lifeless. You feel nothing for these animals as characters in a story because they are utterly expressionless and dead-eyed.
Additionally, this realistic form of animation opened the story up to even more problems: real animals don’t sing and dance. And, because they don’t sing and dance, that means that nearly every musical number had to be altered to ensure this strict adherence to realism. While “Circle of Life” is a shot-for-shot remake of the original sequence, every other musical number in the film has been substantially altered – always for the worse. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” suffers the least from these alterations, mainly because the vocal performance of JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph carries the song a long way while the animation manages to still be fun, though significantly less fantastical. “Hakuna Matata” suffers a bit more as everything that made that sequence visually interesting is stripped away from the film and replaced with Timon, Pumba, and Simba just jogging through the desert/jungle. Couple that with a vocal performance from Donald Glover that’s not particularly strong and you have an uninteresting sequence. Then, the worst offenders: “Be Prepared” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. “Be Prepared” is inexplicably butchered, with half of the song getting cut and all of the visuals being changed to just Scar jumping around some rocks while yelling at the hyenas. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is completely overhauled, changed the action to broad daylight (while still allowing the lyrics to reference the nighttime), purportedly because the “realistic lighting engine” made the nighttime too dark for the musical number – except that several other scenes still happened at night. Couple that song with Donald Glover and Beyoncé giving very uneven vocal performances and you have a very disappointing rendition of the song. Musically, most of the songs are fine – save for “Be Prepared” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, which both suffer from some weak vocal performances – but visually, they’re pretty lacking. (Also, technically, Beyoncé has a new song in the film, but you hear like thirty seconds of it playing underneath a scene and it sounds nothing like any of the other music – written by Tim Rice, Elton John, and Hans Zimmer – so, it’s barely worth mentioning.)
Speaking of vocal performances: they’re equally uneven. James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and John Oliver (Zazu) probably give the best performances out of the whole cast. James Earl Jones always sounds good and Eichner and Rogen are the absolute highlights of the film as they imbue their characters with a lot of energy that just demands your attention any time they’re on screen. The rest of the cast range from “just fine” to “not on screen enough to make an impression” to “utterly disappointing”. JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph are great as Young Simba and Young Nala, each delivering performances that are far more interesting than those delivered by Donald Glover and Beyoncé as the adult versions of those characters. Both Glover and Beyoncé sound like they’re just reading their lines without any real emotion and it just doesn’t work. It makes the already-boring middle of the movie even more boring and makes the climax lack tension. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a decent job as Scar but he’s never allowed to do anything with the role as the script is so slavishly devoted to the original film, meaning we hardly see Scar for large chunks of the movie. Keegan Michael Key and Eric Andre are utterly disappointing as the two Hyenas they play; they seemed to ad-lib most of their lines but to significantly less success than Eichner and Rogen and their humor ends up in stark contrast with the utter seriousness that Florence Kasumba portrays Shenzi (the other hyena) with. In the animated film, all three hyenas were a bit silly and it worked, but here, Andre and Key stick out like sore thumbs. The rest of the cast do fine jobs but they have such little screen time that it’s hard to have any kind of impression on them.
All in all, The Lion King (2019) is disappointing. It’s nearly the exact same film we’ve already seen – to the point of feeling utterly boring at times as you sit there and wonder why you’re watching this film when you could just watch the one that already existed and is doing all of the same things only better. The animation is equal parts impressive and utterly lifeless; its adherence to realism creating a horrific uncanny valley while robbing many of the musical numbers of their chance to be as visually interesting as they were in the original animated film. The voice cast ends up being just as mixed a bag as some actors give great performances while others – namely Donald Glover and Beyoncé – give immensely disappointing ones. Couple the uneven performance with the utter lack of facial expressions on the animals and you have a group of completely uncompelling characters. All of this adds up to a film that’s not bad but is frequently boring and pales in comparison to the film it’s trying to remake. Having seen this movie, the only question I’m left with is “why remake the film if you’re gonna change so little and use animation that’s inferior to the original?” Why mess with what was already working just fine if you’re not gonna do a better job? I already own the best version of The Lion King and I suspect most everybody who’s interested in seeing this remake does too, so I’d advise you to save $10 and just watch your DVD or Blu-Ray or Digital Download of the original version of The Lion King instead. You’ll enjoy it more.
2.5 out of 5 wands.