The Lion King Review: An Uninspired Visual Extravaganza
Millions of people all across the world consider The Lion King to be an animated masterpiece, and I am one of them. I saw the original on the big screen back in 1994 and remember falling in love with it. Between seeing it five times in the theater, owning the soundtrack on CD and cassette, and collecting the action figures, I was obsessed. I’ll even admit that my mom and dad bought me a bootleg VHS copy of the film because they were so tired of listening to me talk about the film, and constantly taking me to the theater to see it again.
When I heard that there was going to be a “live-action” remake, my immediate thought was “why?” Despite not having a real answer to that question, besides guaranteed profits, I continued to follow the project and became somewhat intrigued when I heard Jon Favreau signed on to direct. In 2016, Favreau raised the bar for visual effects with his Jungle Book remake, which was a massive success at the box office and a hit with the critics and audiences alike. Despite still not knowing if the world needed a remake of The Lion King, I knew that Favreau would do his best and give it his all. That remained the case at The Lion King premiere, where the cast, crew, and thousands of others, all seemed beyond excited to see what was in store for them.
Most people know what The Lion King is all about, but for those who somehow have not seen one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, let me take a brief moment to share the plot with you. The Lion King is about a young lion cub named Simba (voiced by Donald Glover as an adult) whose father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), hopes he will one day follow in his footsteps, and become king. However, Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans to take over as the ruler of Mufasa’s Pride Lands. The film is a timeless classic, and part of cinematic history, so you should see it if you haven’t already.
Looking at this 2019 visual extravaganza, as expected, Disney and Favreau have, once again, raised the bar for visual effects filmmaking. The technology used in creating this film is so mindblowing that it is almost impossible to believe every single scene in the movie is CGI. Favreau and the entire VFX team should be so proud of what they accomplished with this film. We live in an era where visual effects are at the center of most studio films, so to see spectacular visuals like the ones found throughout this film is remarkable to witness. This visual effects group is now the frontrunner for all of the visual effects awards this upcoming award season. In this regard, the film is truly is a visual marvel.
Unfortunately, that same praise cannot be applied to the rest of the film. While I know some readers will disagree, I found the film not only to be uninspired but completely unwarranted. I get that Disney wanted to show off how far technology has come and they picked the perfect director for the task, but there isn’t much else about this remake that stands out. And while the visuals do serve as the film’s most significant selling point, and a reason to see it in a theater, they do work against the film in terms of compelling storytelling.
The emotional connection between the characters is a big part of what makes the animated version so memorable. That is precisely what’s missing in this update. I understand the goal of creating a CGI movie with realistic looking animals, but seeing a photoreal lion get hurt doesn’t have the same emotional effect as it does with an animated counterpart. I didn’t experience the same level of sadness and heartache I felt for these characters in the original animated film. There is just something about watching a photoreal lion that doesn’t give you the “feels” the same way animation does.
While the majority of the voice cast is good enough, only Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen stood out as Timon and Pumbaa. One could argue that John Oliver as Zazu stood out as well, but that is really about it. When you have such strong power players in the entertainment industry like Donald Glover and Beyoncé voicing iconic characters, it is incredibly shocking for their voices not to stand out whatsoever. I would even argue Beyoncé is entirely miscast here, despite being such a cultural icon. Her voice took me out of the film and could have easily been replaced by almost anyone else to better effect. It honestly felt as though most of the cast were reading their lines and collecting a paycheck, minus Eicher and Rogen, who were having a blast just playing versions of themselves as a meerkat and warthog.
While the film is not entirely a shot-by-shot remake, it does follow the original almost to a T. I am sure that I won’t be the first to mention this, but while watching this film, I couldn’t help but think of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake from 1998. The only real difference in this version of The Lion King was an homage to another Disney film and some secondary animal characters to show off the visuals advancements further, and add some silly background gags. Given the amount of love most have for the original, I was shocked to find absolutely no risks taken when remaking this film. There are no new characters or significant changes to the script, not even a new musical number. A new Beyoncé song appears towards the end of the film, but only as a part of the score.
With practically nothing about this film separating it from the original (aside from the visual choice), I find it almost insulting to the writing team behind the 1994 film that Jeff Nathanson even received screenwriting credit for this film. Most of the original material feels like a handful of improvised lines from Eichner and Rogen. A lot of people have been incredibly hard on Disney’s choice to produce these live-action remakes, but aside from the money they generate, at least the creative teams behind the others made some significant changes. Aladdin added a new character, reinterpreted some of the music, and even added a new song. Dumbo built its story on the idea of corruption and corporate greed. Despite how you may feel about either of these films, at least they took some risks when remaking a Disney classic.
This brings me to the soundtrack featuring all of the same incredible songs from the original. Don’t get me wrong, the music is excellent, but the songs don’t have that same “wow” factor they had when I first heard them. The only exception is “The Circle of Life,” which is still as amazing in this version as it was 25 years ago. Ironically enough, I felt the same about most of the dialogue. These actors just can’t recreate that same magic, even with the same material.
I cannot deny that certain viewers will eat this remake up as if it were a delicious piece of cake. Disney is fully aware the original Lion King is a beloved cultural phenomenon, so much so this remake relies almost entirely on nostalgia. It will work best for those who know and are ok with the film being a near-shot-for-shot remake, featuring new technology. For me, that isn’t enough for me to recommend it, let alone want to watch it again.
As much as this saddens me to say, The Lion King is the first live-action Disney remake I cannot recommend. While writing this review, one of my film friends texted me, “Why would anyone opt to watch this version over the original?” I thought about it and responded with, “Because of the visuals,” which made me realize there is nothing else about this film to make me want to watch it again over the original. The 1994 film is superior in every single way, and 25 years later remains a timeless classic. All the visual effects in the world cannot replace the pure Disney magic that was brought to life by the entire cast and crew in the 1994 animated masterpiece.