2 out of 5 stars.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that something with “The Lion King”—a remake of the 1994 Disney animated classic directed by Jon Favreau—is vastly wrong. The new movie utilizes cutting edge technology to create photorealistic animal characters, and as beautiful as they look, they serve as a masterclass in why some forms of storytelling don’t work in certain mediums.
But that isn’t the only flaw in this “Lion King” for a generation that is growing up on Disney’s live-action remakes of their hand-drawn animated classics rather than the originals themselves. You can say many things about the previous remakes Disney has released in the previous few years, good and bad, but at least they all changed or expanded on the original story in some manner. Perhaps the closest to a “shot for shot” remake was 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast,” but even that film contained numerous reworkings of scenes and new songs and sequences. Outside of some dialogue changes here and there, this new “Lion King” duplicates almost every shot and every scene from the original.
Having said that, a plot summary is likely unnecessary, but here you go: “The Lion King” centers around a young lion, Simba, the son of the king of the Pride Lands, Mufasa. Mufasa’s brother Scar schemes to kill Mufasa and get rid of Simba so he can take the throne, and he does, sending Simba into exhile. But after reuniting with his childhood friend Nala, Simba becomes convinced that he needs to return home and retake his place as king.
The new film contains an all-new voice cast, with one notable exception: the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, whose vocal performance as Mufasa is one of the most iconic in the Disney canon, returns to voice him again here. The rest of the incredible ensemble is made up of a more diverse cast than the original movie. Young Simba is voiced by JD McCrary, and young Nala by Shahadi Wright Joseph, who played the same role in the Broadway production. The older versions of the characters are played by Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles. The cast also includes John Oliver as Zazu, the uptight hornbill who serves on the king’s court; Alfre Woodard as Simba’s mother Sarabi; John Kani as Rafiki; Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, and Eric Andre as the hyenas who help Scar; and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar himself. They all do a decent job, including in their performances of new versions of Elton John and Tim Rice’s iconic music. But stealing the show by far is Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumbaa, the carefree meerkat and warthog who befriend Simba after he leaves home and teach him about their no worries, “hakuna matata” lifestyle. They riff off each other in a way that isn’t often seen in animated characters, and their hysterical one-liners and interpretation of what is otherwise a very serious story are bright spots in an otherwise bland movie. And no, while Timon doesn’t dress in drag and do the hula, he does get to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with Pumbaa and some of the other animals, and incredibly it’s the best music number in the film, because it feels so natural.
That’s a big reason why this film falls flat on its face: it’s a musical, but trying to shove these characters that both look and move in so realistically into a song-and-dance routine is just ridiculous. The resulting compromise is music numbers that look stiff, and animals performing in a way that is just too silly to take seriously. It isn’t so bad in the scenes where the song plays over the action, such as the iconic “Circle of Life” number that opens the film; portions of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (which doesn’t actually take place at night, but I’ll let that slide); and a lovely new song by Beyoncé titled “Spirit” (sorry Broadway fans, but there’s no “He Lives in You” here). But other numbers, like “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Be Prepared,” and “Hakuna Matata,” lack enthusiasm.
And while the voice actors all do a good job, their voices are almost too big for their characters, who don’t emote in a way that makes it seem as if those voices are indeed coming from their mouths. And while some of the shots that are pulled from the original look beautiful in this new version (like Mufasa teaching Simba about the stars, for instance), others, again, don’t work as well in this format. I hate to say it, but even Mufasa’s death—which is framed in the exact same manner as the original, from the overhead shot of him falling to the zoom out from Simba, borders on comical. We may be being fed the same material that we know and love from the original, but the filmmakers seem to both put the visuals ahead of the actual storytelling, and assume that because it worked for the original film, it will work here. It doesn’t.
I don’t think we can properly discuss what does and doesn’t work about “The Lion King” without also bringing up Favreau’s 2016 version of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” which was generally well-received by critics and which I personally loved. It’s also safe to say that Favreau likely wouldn’t have been tasked with remaking “The Lion King” had “The Jungle Book” not been a success. So what worked about “Jungle Book,” which also used photorealistic animal characters, that didn’t translate as well for “Lion King?” I rewatched “The Jungle Book” recently and came up with several observations. The first is that “Jungle Book,” unlike “Lion King,” isn’t a musical. There is one music number in the film—“I Wan’na Be Like You,” performed by King Louie—and it is the one part of the movie that doesn’t work at all. “The Jungle Book” also derives material from both the 1967 animated Disney movie and Rudyard Kipling’s original story to create a version that is familiar, yet fresh and exciting. “The Lion King” is based on an original screenplay, so there isn’t any other source material to draw from without creating all new content. Maybe the most notable difference is that while “The Lion King” tells its story entirely through animal characters, the main protagonist of “The Jungle Book” is a human boy, which gives the animals someone to react off of and which perhaps makes the talking animals premise just a tad less silly. Furthermore, while the animal characters in “The Jungle Book” are incredibly realistic, they aren’t quite as realistic as what we see in “Lion King.” There’s more elasticity in the animation, particularly in their faces, that allow them to emote in a slightly more human manner. It works better when they are speaking, and even when they aren’t. The strive to create the most realistic-looking characters possible for “Lion King” resulted in a mind-blowing technical achievement, but it came at a great sacrifice to the film as a whole.
Naturally, all of us who know and love the original “Lion King” are going to bring our own biases into this new version; it can’t be helped. It is nice to see so many parents who grew up with the original using this film as a way to introduce their children to the story. But not all stories can be told as effectively in one medium as they can in another. What worked for “Jungle Book” didn’t work for “Lion King.” The same can be said of the upcoming film adaptation of the musical “Cats,” the trailer for which took the internet by storm this week with its interpretation of its feline cast. This film makes it easy to praise its stunning visuals—but it’s just as easy to mourn what was lost in the translation from hand-drawn animation to live-action.
Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG.