The Lion King and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Jon Favreau
Didn’t I just do this a month ago? Seriously Disney, I know you own basically all of entertainment now, but can you at least change it up a bit from month to month? We JUST got done making fun of the genie in Aladdin; we don’t need another remake this soon! Seriously, if they keep burning through their renaissance films like this they’re gonna have to take another stab at Treasure Planet before 2030, and if they thought that one sunk like a lead balloon LAST TIME… oh who am I kidding? We’ll give it a billion dollars at the box office without a second thought! So until those bleak times are upon us, does this latest remake of a beloved nineties classic live up to the original, or is this a worse idea than Lion King 1.5? Let’s find out!!
Now stop me if you’ve heard this one before! Simba (Donald Glover) is the son of Mustafa (James Earl Jones); king of the Pride Lands and brother of Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who conveniently has a scar on his face to go with the name. Now if the name wasn’t enough to convince you, scar is one EVIL lion that wants the throne for himself but now has to wait behind the little brat for his shot. That is unless he pulls a Hamlet and MURDERS THE KING IN COLD BLOOD, albeit with a stampede instead of a jug of ear poison. Convincing young Simba that he is responsible, he runs off to live in exile while Scar takes the Pride Lands for himself, and the young prince runs into two free spirited do nothings called Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen). While Simba is living his carefree life as a slacker, things are not going so well in the Pride Lands under Scar’s quasi fascist rule with the help of the hyenas and so Simba’s childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) runs off to find help, and believing Simba to be dead this whole time… well let’s just say there’s an awkward conversation very soon in their future. Can Simba find the courage to face his fear and his guilt that have defined him for so long? Just how far will Scar go to stay seated on his throne, and does Simba have a chance of defeating him after all this time? Did Disney listen to that “everything the light touches” line again recently and consider that a challenge?
It’s fine. It’s The Lion King, but now you can pay theater prices to see it again which I’m sure a lot of people will want to do, and frankly it’ll be a lot more people than would go out to see the movie re-released. I mean that alone kind of justifies SOME of the remakes we’ve gotten recently since there are things about these movies worth revisiting and making relevant for another generation. Heck, even if it’s not STRICTLY a remake, Maleficent is one of the best examples of this in how it re-contextualizes the original film in a new medium and with a modern lens; see also the new Star Wars movies. The problem is that more often than not they’re just there to remind you of the original and make a few tongue in cheek references to them which is about the extent of updating they bother with, and this has to be the least updated of ANY Disney remake so far. They are working from a genuinely good template and having not seen the original film for so long it WAS pretty fun to see it once again, but the only real idea they had for this was to make the art style as realistic as possible, and frankly I don’t think that’s enough to overshadow or even stand shoulder to shoulder with the original.
The realistic animation is the unavoidable problem here and the simple fact is that the animals cannot emote with their faces. Outside of a few moments with the side characters (Zazu ACTUALLY manages to convey sarcasm at one point), no one is able to move their face in a way that expresses anything because heaven forbid that the most cutting edge graphics technology allow us to believe a talking animal can move their eyebrows. This is at least mitigated by the fact that they can still express themselves through body language and the voice acting itself, but it’s a huge step down from the original which had VERY expressive animation. So much of Simba’s arc gets lost due to this because in the original film his face conveyed so many different emotions and conflicts. The original film does such a great job of conveying him at two drastically different periods of his life through the animation itself. The way that he carries himself, the dopey expressions he makes, all contribute to his immaturity and arrested development when he’s an adult which is the crux of the movie’s theme; that running away from your problems means you can never grow beyond them. Here, he’s just a big ol’ lion when he gets older and doesn’t really look or move any differently from Mufasa, and so Donald Glover’s voice acting has to carry so much of that with only moderate results. When he’s a kid he doesn’t come off like a brat as much because even with his I’M GONNA BE KING speechifying, he doesn’t have the snotty looks to back it up which makes him come off more earnest than arrogant. And of course, the death of Mufasa as well feels kind of muted because of this new style. First, it looks kind of silly when this realistic looking lion does a NOOOOO scream, but then Simba can’t convey the pain and guilt of losing a father and feeling responsible for it. It still WORKS because the script is still the same and the voice acting is good, but it doesn’t have quite the punch to it that the animated film had.
Simba’s arc isn’t the only thing affected by this change. Every single musical number is muted because the only thing that a realistically moving lion can do is frolic in the grass, and the settings can’t SUDDENLY change color because creative license simply doesn’t exist in a non-animated medium; just ask Baz Luhrmann! The music is still great so you can get into the numbers on that level, but comparing them to the original is just a losing proposition because those animated sequences contained so much life, energy, and creativity; all of which are lacking in the way they redo them here. The one that has it worst is the Can You Feel The Love Tonight scene which, SPOILER ALERT, I didn’t. It’s really underwhelming for all the reasons I already mentioned and honestly it’s just kind of hard for non-anthropomorphized animals to match the grandeur that that song is going for. Finally, the very few fight scenes that are in the movie are just devolves into non-descript animals bashing at each-other and its neigh impossible to tell who is who because none of the character models look distinct enough. Scar may have a scar on his face, but that’s not gonna stick out in the heat of battle like a black mane would. Now by no means do this look BAD as everything is very well rendered in this new style (I couldn’t tell you whether any of the scenes used practical sets or animals or if it was entirely CG all the way through), but it’s so much time and effort to make something that I genuinely feel is less interesting to watch. This movie costs five times the budget of the original film, and I’m sure that if you adjust for inflation it won’t be QUITE that much, but the takeaway here is that they spent so much more money trying to update this thing and as far as I’m concerned didn’t get even halfway there.
So the question is; does this movie do ANYTHING better than the original, or at least as good but in a different way? Honestly, the only thing that comes to mind is Scar. I don’t know if Chiwetel Ejiofor is BETTER than Jeremy Irons, but in this movie with this new art style, the changes to his character feel the most naturally suited. They toned down his campiness quite a bit which was kind of necessary since he can’t move his face, so instead his menace and personality come through pretty much entirely through Ejiofor’s slimy and malicious performance. They still make him do the Be Prepared song though which is pretty much butchered due to the constraints discussed earlier. Other than that, the songs are still good so the new recordings are good as well, and it’s a solid cast all around. If they just did a new dub of the movie with the somewhat updated soundtrack I’d actually say it was a noticeable if somewhat unnecessary improvement, but with the new animation they become the anchor that keeps this from falling apart.
I don’t want to come off TOO negative because despite what I’ve said in this review, this IS a good story and they do a good job of retelling it even if I think that it’s ultimately an inferior version. The thing is that I’m not the target audience for this stuff anymore and maybe the kids appreciate the more grounded aesthetic to the cartoonish one. I’m not sure how that could be, but then I couldn’t figure out the big deal behind Fortnight so I guess I’m just behind the times and that Sonic the Hedgehog movie is gonna do gangbusters. Do I recommend seeing it in theaters? Well I probably had more fun rewatching clips of the animated film online, but if the original film is simply not an option for whatever reason, then sure. Check it out while you can because if you don’t do it now you’ll probably have to wait another twenty years for them to take a third crack at it, and by then it will be some sort of Disney expanded universe. Wait, Kingdom Hearts already did that. Tell me a gain why that isn’t a movie franchise yet?