The Lion King (2019)
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Beyoncé, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, John Kani, James Earl Jones
The Lion King marks the second Disney “live-action” remake helmed by director Jon Favreau, the first being 2016’s The Jungle Book. I was delighted by the latter film; new life was given to a familiar story with state-of-the-art animation and a slue of talented actors lending their voices to create an incredibly entertaining reimagining of a Disney classic. Because of this, when I discovered Favreau would also be directing The Lion King, I had very high hopes… hopes that were perhaps too high. While The Jungle Book enhanced the magic of its predecessor, The Lion King did the opposite.
We all know the story: the animal kingdom is led by the mighty lion Mufasa (James Earl Jones), whose young cub Simba (JD McCrary) is next in line for the throne. However, Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) believes he should sit atop Pride Rock because he thinks he’s better than everyone else. After throwing Mufasa to his death, Scar blames Simba for the murder and forces the young heir to run away so he can take the throne for himself. While Scar is busy screwing up the entire kingdom, Simba meets new friends: the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumba (Seth Rogen), who are both outcasts themselves. The duo teaches Simba not to worry about anything, and to enjoy life day by day (in other words, “Hakuna Matata”). It isn’t until Simba is fully grown that his old friend Nala (Beyoncé) finds him and urges him to return to Pride Rock and challenge Scar, who has turned the kingdom into a barren wasteland. At first, grown-up Simba (Donald Glover) refuses, because Timon and Pumba turned him into a big baby, but when the mysterious monkey Rafiki (John Kani) comes knocking, he convinces Simba that Mufasa is watching from above. The booming, familiar voice of James Earl Jones tells Simba “remember who you are,” and just like that, Simba is off and running back to Pride Rock where he defeats Scar and, of course, retakes the Lion Throne. And Scene.
Visually, the film is stunning. There are shots that truly amaze, such as lifelike fireflies illuminating the face of Rafiki against the backdrop of an African sunset. Favreau indulges the power of the visuals at his fingertips, allowing the most breathtaking shots to play out so the audience can absorb them to the fullest. The opening scene is the most prime example of this, as “The Circle of Life” plays and the camera pans over the thriving plains of Africa. Nostalgia grips hard here. Unfortunately, I would soon discover that this is the best scene of the entire movie.
As soon as The Lion King moves to an intimate level among its characters, problems arise. First and foremost, the animals are way too realistic. The strong voiceover performances are undermined by a lack of expression in each of the characters’ faces, something that was not an issue with the original film’s traditional form of animation. The mix of almost photorealistic visuals and more traditional animated film voiceover work creates the sense that some characters are borderline creepy when they speak, particularly that of John Oliver’s Zazu, who’s anatomically perfect hornbill face just doesn’t do the comedian’s voice justice. I found myself wondering if the Disney Nature crew took over midway through. The dialogue also faces its share of obstacles. At times, character lines feel forced, especially in the case of James Earl Jones’ Mufasa. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers either took his words directly from the original film and placed it in this one, or Jones half-assed his lines on repeat for the sake of pleasing fans of the 1994 version.
Some of the musical numbers also don’t sit well with me. A few iconic songs from the first film are seriously altered here, and it doesn’t feel right. Scar’s song “Be Prepared” is choppy and uncomfortable (probably due to Ejiofor’s lack of singing voice), and Zazu’s delightful “Morning Report” is flat out removed. The only songs I did enjoy were the reimagining of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” featuring Beyoncé and Glover, as well as a short rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with an animal ensemble.
I wish there was more to say about this one, and I wanted so badly to commend Favreau for another job well done with a Disney remake. The trouble is, a lot of these films are so damn nostalgic and personal to a lot of viewers, that the remakes only do the originals a disservice (see also Aladdin). The Lion King is worth a single viewing for its stunning visuals, but don’t expect to be moved like you were 25 years ago.
Written by Samuel Sybert