Review: The Lion King (2019)


Disney’s hyper-realistic CGI remake of The Lion King is a pointless film. The 1994 The Lion King is among the greatest animated films ever made. Few films are as perfectly calibrated in their various pleasures, but Disney’s current business ethos is to recycle all popular properties from the past to cash in on nostalgia. Thus, a “live action” remake was inevitable. But if a remake was going to happen regardless of whether it should, and its commercial success was ensured, why is the final product so tame? What makes The Lion King pointless is not that it does not improve on the original film, but that it cannot exist outside of relation to that film. It is a slave to the original, although hopelessly inferior to it.

To be clear, The Lion King is not bad. Its story and music are excellent, as they were in the original, because they are the same as in the original. But the film is hollow and uncanny. It’s an attempt to recreate past magic without a consideration of what created that magic in the first place. To be sure, the story is important: a riff on Hamlet, anime, and African legends it tells the tale of the lion prince Simba (JD McRary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult) trying to reclaim the throne of the Pride Lands after his treacherous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), kills his father, Musafa (James Earl Jones). The music is also key to its success, as the hit songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are as good as they’ve always been.

But the presentation of this story and these songs are what sink this version of The Lion King. The presentation of the film as photorealistic robs it of its character, invention, and emotion. The opening moments of the film are the most successful, virtually recreating every shot of the opening of the 1994 film, but with gorgeous CGI animation. However, once the song is over and the novelty of the animation wears off, the photorealistic approach shows its weaknesses. Soon enough, the animals that look like the real thing begin to talk, but the moving of their mouths doesn’t align properly with the natural presentation of the animation. For the first 30 minutes of the film, my brain couldn’t process the presentation correctly. I felt like I was watching a nature documentary while listening to the soundtrack of The Lion King. It was discombobulating.

By the time the catchy bop “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” arrives, the shortcomings of photorealistic animation are made clear. In the original, this song is a lively display of animal life as well as a clever visual construction. Simba and his friend/future queen, Nala, frolic around a waterhole and encounter various African animals. The film presents the animals in a Busby Berkeley-style montage of colour and vibrancy. The cartoon quality of the film lets them bend reality to suit the needs of the song; we all know ostriches don’t stand on giraffes who don’t stand on rhinos, but the animation lets you do it anyway.

But not in this version of The Lion King. Photo-realism is the operating principle, so the musical sequence now consists of Simba and Nala simply running through a stream and around the waterhole. We see all the animals from the original, but there are no clever visual arrangements, much less fantastic balancing acts or star-bursts of ostriches. The music is there and the story beat is there, but the presentation is hollow. It has no character.

This hollow nature of the animation grows more troublesome during the film’s emotional peak, when Mufasa dies while saving Simba during a wildebeest stampede. The scene from the original film is the most devastating in all of Disney, perhaps save for the death of Bambi’s mother, but in this version, the only sadness comes from the memories of the original it provokes. Not only does the build-up to the scene lack the tension of the original (showing that the visual construction of the original is much more sophisticated than this new, “realistic” version of the film, despite being a cartoon), but the actual death seems obligatory, not tragic. It exists to thrust the film into the next act, instead of breaking the hearts of the viewers watching.

The lack of emotional power is directly related to the animation. Although we know Simba is sad, we do not see that he’s sad, because it’s impossible to make a lion cub’s face look heartbroken while retaining photo-realism. In the original film, Simba looks devastated and even cries. The sight of him trying to raise his father’s dead paw is still capable of bringing me to tears.

This problem rears its head during many of the film’s signature moments, from “Be Prepared”—real hyenas don’t goosestep, so no fascist hyenas here—to “Hakuna Matata”—you can’t have lions swing like Tarzan from trees in a realistic film—to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which lacks any of the sexual overtones of the original, and inexplicably takes place in the early evening, to boot.

All of this shows profound miscalculation on the part of director Jon Favreau and the creative team. They wanted realism, but they also wanted to make a musical that captures the magic of the original, not understanding that you cannot have a real musical without leaving realism by the wayside in pursuit of the magic. 

Other changes in the film are less disastrous, but more tiresome. In attempting to flesh out the characters and play to modern tastes, the film gives Nala (Beyonce as an adult) more screen time and agency, but it plays like pandering to Queen Bey stans and milquetoast progressive tastes. And Beyonce’s vocal performance, both during and between songs, leaves something to be desired. Donald Glover fares better but the dialogue they saddle him with overwhelms him at moments.

For instance, key scenes in the film verbalize subtext from the original, such as Simba declaring that “I am Simba, son of Mufasa” right after having the encounter with his father in the clouds. As if we couldn’t determine the meaning of Simba running back home immediately following the scene. The film is not only a hollow retread, but also a more literal, graceless version of the original.

The Lion King is the logical end-point of Disney’s nostalgia machine, where the studio not only wants to capitalize on our childhoods, but literally sell us the same film again with little more than technological upgrades. Sadly, you can never go home again, and no matter how slavish this remake is to the original, it lacks the spark that made the 1994 film so remarkable.

5 out of 10

The Lion King (2019, USA)

Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Jeff Nathanson, based on the original film written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton; starring Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones.