Lion King, The (United States, 2019)

July 17, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lion King, The Poster

The Lion King becomes the first mainstream animated film to be remade as an animated film. Proponents of calling the 2019 version “live action” will argue that the methods used to make this new iteration are completely different from those employed in 1994. However, although there is a credited cinematographer (the legendary Caleb Deschanel) and some real-life background shots were used, the majority of The Lion King was created on a computer using animation techniques. There are no humans in the film and their only participation was doing voiceover work. Of all the recent Disney recreations, that makes The Lion King the most curious.

For many years, The Lion King was Disney’s highest grossing animated film. It stands at #24 on the all-time domestic list (#20 when adjusted for inflation) and wasn’t knocked off its perch at the top of the Magic Kingdom until the release of 2003’s Finding Nemo. It was the most lucrative of the final wave of hand-drawn animation, sandwiched in between Aladdin and Pocahontas (which showed significant erosion). The film’s success led to its re-invention as a Broadway production and its eventual “transformation” under the guidance of Iron Man director Jon Favreau into the latest of this irksome and unnecessary trend of remaking animated classics into less-than-classic new versions.

On a technical level, The Lion King is an unqualified triumph with Favreau’s photorealistic African fauna making it easy to mistake the movie for an Animal Planet Channel special. Cutting-edge CGI still has issues when it comes to the creation of human beings but it can craft animals with 100% believability. There are drawbacks to this, however. The original The Lion King’s hand-drawn animation placed it in a state of “unreality” where even the most bizarre story elements, such as singing animals, were easily accepted. A disconnect can occur, however, when perfectly rendered animals start speaking. There’s a reason why Tim Burton removed the “talking animal” aspect of Dumbo – the more realistic the creatures, the more difficult it is to accept them doing things that are contrary to their intrinsic capabilities.

The Lion King is essentially a CGI copy of the 1994 film, with occasional visual flourishes, a clever in-joke, and a new song providing sources of differentiation. Even more than was the case with his The Jungle Book remake, Favreau leans on the earlier version. When Kenneth Branagh helped to start this lamentable trend in 2015 with Cinderella, he used the animated classic as an inspiration and expanded the story, giving it a hitherto unrealized depth. Sadly, The Lion King joins Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin as proficient but pointless retreads. All three are significantly longer than their predecessors but none make use of the extra time in the way Branagh did. On a purely technical level, The Lion King is probably the best of these remakes but it’s also the most disappointing because the gap between potential and achievement is so great.

It’s impossible to deny the film’s appeal. Those who have never seen the 1994 The Lion King will “ooh” and “aah” at the cute animals and shrink away from the nasty ones. Those who have seen the 1994 version may be overtaken by nostalgia and sentiment. Favreau pulls no punches when it comes to manipulation. For him, The Jungle Book was a warm-up. This is the main show and, to the extent that Disney is more interested in box office success than creativity, he nails it. But financial triumph isn’t everything. If it was, I’d be less aware of the curious emptiness I felt while watching this movie.

In both of its iterations, The Lion King is about guilt and redemption. Simba (Donald Glover), a young lion cub and the heir to the throne of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is duped by his treacherous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), into believing he is the cause of the king’s death. The trauma caused by this realization is so great that Simba abandons his land and his people, going into exile and attempting to find peace-of-mind through anonymity in the company of the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). But it’s never that easy to escape the past and when his long-lost best friend, Nala (Beyoncé), comes looking for help, he finds the pull of Pride Rock difficult to ignore.

The Lion King is based in part on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Mufasa, king of the lions, is killed by a brother who subsequently takes over the rule of the kingdom. (He woos but doesn’t win Mufasa’s widow.) Simba, the grieving son, is wracked by guilt and impotence until the ghost of his father instructs him how to proceed. Favreau, like the filmmakers of the original The Lion King, doesn’t dwell on these parallels but they are obvious for anyone with a high school background of the Bard’s play.

Favreau replicates many of the original film’s signature moments. For example, the opening “Circle of Life” sequence, which for many years was considered to represent the pinnacle of Disney’s animated acumen, is lovingly recreated here in a shot-by-shot facsimile. The most disturbing scene, Mustafa’s death, is just as painful to watch today as it was a quarter-century ago. The 2019 The Lion King isn’t without its own quirks. Pumbaa and Timon’s rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is longer and more elaborate and Favreau includes a laugh-inducing reference to another Disney classic. The climactic battle, which was perfunctory in the animated version, is longer and drawn-out here.

Musically, the new movie doesn’t stray far from its predecessor. Hans Zimmer, who composed the 1994 score, came out of retirement to rework and expand his music. The five Elton John/Tim Rice songs are all present as is a version of “He Lives in Me” (originally written for the Lion King­-inspired album, Rhythm of the Pride Lands and subsequently used in both the Broadway musical and the direct-to-video sequel, Lion King 2). One new song, “Spirit” (written and sung by Beyoncé), allows The Lion King to have a horse in the Oscar race Best Song sweepstakes.

For the most part, the new voice actors are reasonable replacements for the originals. James Earl Jones, with his distinctive bass, is the only one to return. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a worthy successor to Jeremy Irons and the duo of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner make it easy to forget Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane. Beyoncé brings star power and a top-notch singing voice to Nala (taking over for Moira Kelly) while Donald Glover emotes more strongly than Matthew Broderick.

Although The Lion King qualifies as solid entertainment for a 2019 family, it’s hard to warm up to this obvious cash-grab. It’s ironic that a movie this creatively bankrupt will likely fill Disney’s coffers to overflowing. Despite the slickness of its technical accomplishments, the film struggles mightily to find the magic that came so easily to its predecessor. Calling it a “worthy successor” would be a stretch. Better instead to call it a reason to visit theaters at a time when such “reasons” are becoming increasingly few and far between.

Lion King, The (United States, 2019)

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard
Home Release Date: 2019-10-22
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Brenda Chapman
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2019-07-19
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1