This week saw the release of Disney’s latest and cash-grabbiest remake yet, this time re-creating 1994’s The Lion King. Most of the discourse surrounding this film has been negative, calling it everything from soulless to creatively bankrupt. That being said, I’m sure it’ll be the “mane event” and get the lion’s share this weekend at the box office. I haven’t been too thrilled with this film’s marketing campaign, but I prefer to give movies a fair chance, and I like Jon Favreau as a director. Besides, Disney is my favorite thing; I may not like some of the remakes, but I’m still going to see each one and judge it individually. Let’s get some grubs and see how the remake shapes up.
With little exception, The Lion King’s plot is identical to that of the 1994 classic. For the five of us who haven’t seen the original film, “The Circle of Life” is re-created shot-for-shot as baby Simba is introduced to the animals in his father’s Kingdom. Once the young Prince (JD McCrary) is a little older, his father, King Mufasa (reprised by James Earl Jones), shows him the lands he will rule over and teaches him about responsibility and the Circle of Life. Their lessons are cut off when Mufasa sends Simba home so he can deal with a hyena attack. Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells Simba about an Elephant Graveyard where he can go play, part of the land Mufasa forbade him to explore. Back at Pride Rock, Simba convinces Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) to go with him, but naturally, their mothers insist that Zazu (John Oliver) accompany them. After explaining what a great, fearless, authoritative king he will be, Simba dodges Zazu with Nala, and the two make it to the Elephant Graveyard. Just like the original, Mufasa arrives just in time to save the day. However, disappointed, he talks to Simba about what being a King, and what being brave, really mean. Scar convinces Simba that going to the gorge to “find his roar” will please Mufasa so much that he’ll forget about the prior incident. Of course, it’s a trap, Mufasa is killed by stampeding wildebeests, and Simba barely escapes alive.
In the desert, Simba is found by meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and boar Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who decide to keep him around. They feed him and teach him the philosophy of “Hakuna Matata” (It means no worries, for the rest of your days!). They laugh off the personal responsibility and “Kings of the Past” wisdom Mufasa had been passing to him. The Prince (Donald Glover) grows to adulthood, ignoring his past and putting himself first until the also-grown-up Nala (Beyonce) shows up looking for help. The two are initially thrilled at their reunion, but Simba’s care-free attitude comes as a shock to brave, selfless Nala, and vice-versa. She decides to head home without him at first. However, the wise Mandril Rafiki (John Kani, who you may know as King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther) tells Simba that Mufasa is still alive within him. He takes him to a lake surrounded by clouds, and Mufasa manifests himself, telling Simba not to forget who he is. With this, Simba decides to go home and help Nala after all. Timon and Pumbaa create a diversion for the hyenas while Simba confronts his uncle for the fate of Pride Rock.
I’m going to get the good out of the way first because there’s really not a lot of it. Everyone’s talking about the visuals in this film, and yes, they’re impressive. From certain angles, these lions look real. I do have some issues with the animation, but we’ll get back to it later. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa are basically perfect castings. I also love Eichner in American Horror Story, so it’s good to see him doing other work. The best parts of this film are the rare occasions when these two are allowed to improvise rather than echo Nathan Lane’s and Ernie Sabella’s lines from the original. In fact, the same is true of a lot of cast members. Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key play Azizi and Kamari, the renamed Ed and Banzai from the original movie. They’re not amazing in this film, but they shine when they get to do something new instead of retread old ground. John Oliver isn’t fantastic as Zazu, but he does get some hilarious lines. He sounds almost exactly like Rowan Atkinson from the original. Donald Glover is good at times, and really sounds a lot like Matthew Broderick, which surprised me. Of course, Hans Zimmer’s score is flawless, even though we’ve already heard it. Some of the arrangements and instrumentation vary a little bit here, and I guess it’s debatable whether that’s a good or bad thing. Personally, if they’re just going to reuse the same music, I think it’s preferable that they mix it up a little bit with the recordings.
And that’s about it. I don’t want to be harsh, and again, I’m sure this movie is going to make bank, but creatively speaking, it’s a mistake and should not exist. Aside from the aforementioned examples, the voice acting in The Lion King is very flat and lacking in emotion and personality. Even James Earl Jones, who is returning to a role he helped to make iconic, just sounds like he doesn’t want to be here. While we’re on this subject, I really hate that they brought him back but not Jeremy Irons. Scar is every bit as iconic and integral to the identity of The Lion King as Mufasa is, and Irons helped make the character unique and memorable. In my opinion, they should have invited back all of the principal cast or none of them. I like Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I admire his attempt to do something different with the character, but it really doesn’t work. I don’t really even blame him; I don’t blame any of the cast. These are talented, capable people who have proven themselves in other roles. These actors were forced to step into someone else’s shoes and mimic existing, famous performances rather than making the parts their own. Ejiofor is clearly trying to create a darker, more mysterious version of Scar, but they make him say Irons’ sardonic, quirky lines and it just never really comes together. They also try to flesh out Scar some, and this doesn’t surprise me. They did the same with Jafar and Gaston to similarly disastrous effect. Don’t get me wrong; Scar and (especially) Jafar are pretty basic characters to begin with. We love them for the actors’ performances and their great character designs rather than for being interesting or complex. If you have to remake a movie, ideally you should do some things differently to create a new experience. However, all this backstory is told through dialogue, and even then, it’s really not much. Film is a visual medium, so why feed us these throwaway lines instead of showing us more about the character? Why not go all the way and make us feel what he feels? It’s lazy, and it’s cheap.
This version of The Lion King tries, like many of these remakes, tries to be more sophisticated or mature than the origina,l and here, it fails spectacularly. They make a connection with Scar and Sarabi that adds nothing to the film and just eats up precious screentime. Likewise, they show us how Rafiki ends up with Simba’s hair and realizes that he’s alive. They also do this with Nala, showing us how she gets away from Pride Rock to find Simba and his friends. We do not need to see this. This is useless visual information that we can infer from the original movie. When Nala shows up at Simba’s place, it’s patently obvious that she left the Pridelands. She would have to leave there to end up where Simba is. Scenes like this serve only to pad the film’s runtime, which is unnecessary and makes an already-unpleasant experience stretch out longer than necessary. They also unintentionally create some plot holes in their attempts to over-explain events and the internal politics of the lion pride. For example, in this version, Mufasa sends Simba home when Zazu informs him that Shenzi and the hyenas are attacking and that Sarabi is holding them off. However, when Simba gets home, Sarabi is already there, lounging with the other lionesses. Did they just not re-read the script before filming? How could anyone miss a mistake like that? Scar also tells Zazu to go get help when the wildebeests stampede instead of knocking him out. Why would Scar do things this way? More importantly, why is Zazu, as the King’s advisor, stupid enough to take Scar at face value and leave him alone with Mufasa and Simba? On the more comedic side, Timon and Pumbaa do an impression of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast to distract the hyenas. Do you remember how funny it was when Timon dressed up in a grass skirt in the original? Wasn’t the little song he did hilarious? Well, here, they just appropriate a scene from Beauty and the Beast instead. It’s terrible, not funny and just generally in poor taste.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t love The Lion King’s visuals as much as everyone else seems to. They’re too grounded, and it’s just not entertaining to look at. Scenes like “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and Timon distracting the hyenas don’t work nearly as well when the animals have to act like real animals. Even in 2016’s The Jungle Book (which I liked a lot), they at least gave the characters facial expressions, but here there’s nothing. When they talk, they flap their lower lip, and that’s it. There’s no spectacle of exploding colors and movements during the big musical numbers, and even the more somber moments are just hollow. How am I supposed to care about the characters and their struggles when they look like they don’t even care? Why did they choose to make the movie this way? Sometimes the animals don’t even look good, depending on the angle and lighting. The lions also all look the same in this animation style. Scar is the only one who stands out visually, which leads to some confusion. Moreover, everything in this film is brown, tan, or green. There is no visual variety in this production of The Lion King whatsoever. And similarly to Aladdin’s remake, they inexplicably speed up some scenes from the original and slow down others. This is the same issue as with the acting, really; either do something different or don’t. It feels like they’re afraid to make a new movie by tweaking the story, so instead, they make small, meaningless changes that will simply distract you if you’ve seen the original. Some of the songs are done better than others. At least musically, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and “Hakuna Matata” come out relatively unscathed, but you have to hear how bad “Be Prepared” is to believe it.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Disney’s The Lion King remake, but honestly, it’s somehow worse than I expected. I will say that, technically, this film is more competently made than 2017’s Beauty and the Beast or this year’s Aladdin, but it’s every bit as soulless and meaningless. In fact, much as I didn’t like the Aladdin remake, I have to admit it’s much more inventive than either Beauty and the Beast (2017) or The Lion King (2019). The voice acting in this film is bland and lacking in emotion and personality, with few exceptions. The animation is impressive on a technical level, but hollow emotionally, and the gimmick grows tedious fast. The Lion King is too long, too unoriginal, and seemingly intentionally misses out on the best parts of the original film. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend 2019’s The Lion King. I’d put it in the same category as the direct-to-video sequels and the internet’s worst fanfiction. It’s better made, sure, but it shouldn’t exist, and it serves no purpose save lining Disney’s pockets.