This review was written for CLTure.org.
Another week, another live-action Disney remake.
“The Lion King” is the third Disney live-action remake of 2019, right on the heels of a teaser for the studio’s “Mulan” remake and casting announcements for “The Little Mermaid.”
When dealing with a classic beloved as “The Lion King,” there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to, and plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. When Disney released the first teaser for the film in late 2018, fans and critics alike found themselves divided. Some saw potential for a creative reimagining of one of the studio’s greatest films, while others simply saw a glitzy recreation of the original’s trailer.
“Visually stunning” seems to be the go-to buzz word when it comes to this rendition, and that’s absolutely true. Disney spared no expense in creating ultra-realistic settings and animals that often feel more like an episode of “Planet Earth” than an animated film, but beyond the visuals, there’s nothing revolutionary here.
Director Jon Favreau decided to play it extremely safe, and the result is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 cartoon. Unlike Disney’s recent “Aladdin” remake, which added new characters, scenes and general twists to the classic story, Favreau didn’t take any creative liberties to spice things up. Instead, it’s the exact same story told with almost identical dialogue. What’s more interesting is that Favreau did choose to make these changes to his 2016 adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” which is part of what made it so successful and likely helped him land the job for this film.
The story here is in lockstep with the animated original: When the young lion Simba (JD McCrary) believes he’s the reason his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), has died, he abandons his claim to the throne at the urging of his scheming uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Simba runs into the wilderness where he befriends a sassy meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and his self conscious warthog pal, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a carefree duo who teach him how to live a life with no worries. Years pass and Simba suppresses his past trauma, until his childhood best friend, Nala (Beyoncé), stumbles upon him while looking for help. Now a full-grown Simba (Donald Glover) must rescue his pride from Scar’s evil reign and assume his rightful title as king of Pride Rock.
From the very first casting reveals, it was clear just how special this voice cast would be. With some of the most popular names in film and music involved, talent wasn’t an issue. While Beyoncé and Glover are certainly the biggest draw, their younger counterparts are equally impressive. McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays young Nala, bring to life the young cubs and are able to shine in some of the story’s more compelling moments. If any single casting was deemed questionable beforehand, it was Eichner’s Timon, but he actually ends up turning in one of the film’s best performances.
Still, as talented as the voice cast may be, the first time we see a photorealistic lion speak is pretty jarring. So are next 10 times after that. The beautiful animation comes with a cost, and this is it. In a true cartoon, no one thinks twice about a talking animal, but here, it takes a large portion of the film’s first act just to become accustomed to the dialogue.
Disney may have taken some flak for flooding the market with teaser clips all over TV and social media, but looking back, it seems like a strategic attempt to minimize viewers’ shock once they actually get to the theater.
Another price that comes with the use of such realistic looking animals is the complete loss of characters’ expressions. Again, in a traditional cartoon there’s room to fudge the realism of characters in order to show their feelings, but Favreau can’t suddenly make a real lion smile or frown. As hard as Beyoncé, Glover and the rest of the cast work to inject emotion into their voices, it can only go so far when the exterior is an expressionless creature.
However, the greatest sacrifice Disney is forced to make with its live-action remakes is forsaking each of the cartoons’ individual stylistic flairs, and that’s especially present in “The Lion King.” For a film so rich with bright colors, the palette this time around is drastically dulled. Gone are the brilliant orange and red sunrises, vibrant pink flamingos and exotic-colored bugs. Instead, these scenes are replaced by much more realistic, and significantly less enjoyable, color schemes.
Any discussion of “The Lion King” must include its signature soundtrack, one of the big things this rendition gets right. It’s hard to go wrong when classic songs and the vocals of Beyoncé, Glover, McCrary and Joseph are at your disposal. The only issue comes with Queen Bey’s new song, “Spirit,” which was written specifically for the new movie (and, let’s be honest, an Oscar push). The song is great, however it doesn’t match the traditional sound of the others and would have been better off sticking to the credits rather than putting it in the actual film.
On top of the vocal soundtrack, Hans Zimmer’s score is incredible. After providing the iconic sounds for the original film, Zimmer is back. While he incorporates undertones of the original themes, he hasn’t just recycled his previous work, but crafted something powerful and new.
This version of “The Lion King” will never be able to compare to its predecessor. Yes, it’s a stunning feat in animation and a masterpiece in visual effects certainly worthy of recognition at next year’s Oscars, but ultimately, that’s all it is. It’s enjoyable enough, because the story is identical to the cherished childhood classic, but for anyone looking for something more than straightforward conversion from cartoon to VFX-driven reality,, it’s an underwhelming disappointment.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.