So, The Lion King (2019) has just been released in theaters as of yesterday, and I have a few things to say about it. There may not be much of an introduction for this review since this “live-action” remake (which really should be called ‘photoreal animation’) is only barely different from the source material, and if you’re seeing this one, it’s likely that not only have you seen the original animated classic from 1994, you’ve seen it multiple times (and maybe even shown it to your kids, depending on how old you are). Sure, there’s a mostly new voice cast and some scenes have been lengthened a tad, but that’s essentially most of it. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most anticipated films of the entire year across all demographics, and the hype for its staggeringly well-realized photorealism has been through the roof as of late, especially among Disney execs and their shareholders, with the harmless-but-disappointingly-average Aladdin remake coming just shy of $1 billion worldwide as of this writing. There’s never been a better time to be remaking your old movies in the name of monopolistic, nostalgic over-monetization, and Disney knew it first, making them the kings of the summer box office; it’s a shame, then, that the king of Pride Rock can’t exactly take a lot of pride in his own kingdom, despite the efforts taken to get him there.
To be fair, I’m not saying this Lion King remake is a bad film overall, not by any stretch of the imagination, but there comes a time when one must ask oneself: “what am I expecting out of this?” If your answer involves something like “exactly the same thing as last time,” you might walk out satisfied (if a bit unenthused) about what you saw, but expecting these “live-action” remakes to deliver on their full potential will generally yield greater disappointment than if you don’t. That’s what makes this entry into Disney’s ever-growing dual catalog a disappointing entry even though, as I said, it’s not actually a bad film on the whole. What it succeeds in doing covers more ground in the film than not, and is more frequent than its failures, but once noticed and reflected upon, those failures stick out amongst the rest of the movie’s qualities because the animated Lion King is such a classic with such distinct visual style, music, and well-paced story, that anything simply re-creating it has to have a more distinct visual style than the original in order to stand out as an above-average production.
In that vein, this film can be difficult to review because (since everyone already knows the main plot) the only things I can really meaningfully talk about are the differences the remake has, and truth be told, there aren’t many of them that act towards the film’s benefit; one of these differences is a difference in visual style, or a distinct vision in its direction. I’d say that this film’s style is simply lacking quite a bit in comparison to the 1994 version, but it doesn’t really seem to have a distinct visual style or sense of direction; this does not refer to the VFX so much as the “movement” of the camera within this world. Things are simply put on the screen because they’re “supposed” to be there, which made sense from an animation perspective because most of those composite shots and frames were essential to understanding how the story would progress, but here it just feels empty, like Jon Favreau took The Lion King (1994), said “alright, let’s make that look real,” and then just added a few more things around it, without thinking about how majestic those things are meant to look in a “live-action” environment. The artistry in the animated version showcased expression and the music expressed the majesty they couldn’t fully capture via visuals at the time because it was 1994, animation is expensive, and the first fully-CG animated film (the original Toy Story) wouldn’t come out until another year later. To that end, this remake of the ‘94 animated classic doesn’t just feel lacking, it feels…empty, like the majesty of the narrative has been reduced to a dull growl instead of a glorious roar. There are a few instances which make this stick out precisely because they manage to capture the grandiosity of The Lion King’s story and the vast planes of Africa, but they only make up three or four shots in the whole of the film. Everything else is just kind of there, occasionally interrupted by some of the same re-creations of frames in the original that…don’t really work from a photoreal standpoint.
Another instance in which this remake fails to either replicate or improve upon the success of the original is in the dialogue. This has happened a number of times with Disney’s “live-action” remakes, but for whatever reason, the studio to end all studios insists on keeping almost exactly the same animated dialogue in most of the character exchanges as in the original film, and while that might work for an animated film because animation is less limited by broad, archetypal characters than most live-action things are in order to make the stories more accessible to young children, the lack of facial animation present in the remake (apart from making things look real) fails to capture the nuances of that broader, more general tone, thus also failing to make it land in the way it was likely meant to. Even the expanded scenes of the film, which are mostly needlessly drawn out in order to stretch the final product to a two-hour runtime, don’t have much in the way of character development within them, largely devoid of dialogue or interaction that isn’t part of the visual effects barrage.
Of course, this is no fault of the star-studded voice cast, saddled with the thankless task of trying to bring some life into this circle (see what I did there?) of story re-hash, including none other than the returning James Earl Jones as Mufasa. The scenes that moved you before still (mostly) move you, including his death scene (apologies to those who haven’t seen the original movie, but it has been out since 1994), but some of the scenes that haven’t been changed from their original incarnations feel rushed, even stilted. The music of the original film is an element essential to its success and to its overall charm, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” feels like it comes way too soon into the narrative in terms of its proximity to when Nala finally shows up. The whole scene feels incredibly rushed, and in case you’re wondering, no, not even Beyoncé can make stilted, animated dialogue sound better in a photoreal environment. It’s not a terrible voice performance overall, but the lines she and Donald Glover (who voices older Simba) have to work with aren’t doing them any favors in that regard.
In fact, most of the voice cast gets the shorts end of the straw here. Again, they’re not terrible performances, but the noticeable lack of facial animation to show nuance in the dialogue (which hasn’t been updated to give itself nuance due to that lack of facial animation). Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, likely the largest point of contention among the cast for those who remember the iconic vocal musings of Jeremy Irons, more than fits the bill, but the way he’s directed to read some of the dialogue in the more dramatic moments takes some of the wind out of them, and his “long live the king” just doesn’t measure up to Irons’ quiet, menacing tone. It’s not all; Billy Eichner steals the show as Timon, and Alfre Woodard’s performance as Sarabi is going criminally unspoken of in terms of great vocal performances in this movie, but even some of the lesser numbers just don’t have the same punch that they did when updated with some new cast members who (and I say this out of love) are not vocal singers for a reason. As much as I love Seth Rogan and John Oliver having fun, there’s a reason they’re not musicians (and I’m sure they know that so it’s not a huge deal, but I can’t just refrain from commenting on something that stuck out to me so prominently).
Speaking of music, remember that iconic “King of Pride Rock” score Hans Zimmer did for the original version, the one from the second trailer for this movie? It’s even more present here, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself (after all, some of the best film scores play a motif at the beginning in order to pay it off at the end), it gets overused so much in this iteration that it actually started to annoy me a little. And when it comes to that scene that masterful musical composition was created for, the added choir vocals on top of a track that already had choir vocals in it actually manages to distract from the beauty of the instrumental moments in the music. In fact, there are some scenes (like the one where Simba finally returns home) where the music is swapped out entirely for something different, which would be fine, except that the new music takes some of the gravitas out of those moments, and anyone fond of musical scores begins to question why they bothered to change it at all if they weren’t going to change much else in the narrative to match it.
I know it probably sounds like I hated this Lion King remake, but truth be told, I did enjoy it while I was watching it. It’s simply that most of what I liked about it (apart from the ridiculously astounding visual effects) wasn’t something I haven’t seen before. It entertained me, and I’ll give it a positive score for the things it does right, which mostly outweigh the things it either doesn’t do or straight-up does wrong. But a remake like this, to be worthwhile (to me, anyway) needs to be more than entertaining in order to justify being made. No single film can prove its worth simply by existing; there are occasionally some that can gain a few points here or there for being the first of their kind or being bold enough to go in a direction or say something no one’s really tried before, at least not to the level said film does, but if the narrative isn’t engaging, the characters aren’t compelling, and the craft isn’t up to par with where it could go, even those movies will fall short, and The Lion King (2019) seems to want its existence to be enough to make it a good movie, without doing anymore heavy lifting than updating the look of the already-compelling story it’s simply repeating.
I’m giving “The Lion King” (2019) a 6.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.