The Lion King (2019) Review

VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE,

BUT LACKS ORIGINALITY


 

In 1994, Walt Disney Studios released The Lion King, their 32nd animated feature film and the fifth film in the famous “Disney Renaissance era” (i.e. 1989 to 1999). Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the movie, which starred the voice talents of James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, and Nathan Lane, a young lion prince named Simba, who must embrace his role as the rightful king of his native land (i.e. The Pride Lands) following the murder of his father, Mufasa, at the hands of his uncle, Scar. The Lion King was met with success by receiving both critical and public acclaim from critics and moviegoers everywhere. The proof of the film’s success was also measured in its box office result, with the movie grossing (as of now) over $980 million worldwide as well as garnishing several awards, including two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe. The legacy of The Lion King has endured for years and has created several off-shoots with its brand as franchise, including DTV (Direct to Videos) sequels, two cartoon series, a Broadway stage musical, and several others. Now, nearly 25 years since the release of the 1994 animated classic, Walt Disney Studios and director Jon Favreau present the 2019 remake theatrical motion picture of The Lion King. Does this “visual jump” from handwriting animation to computer generated ascend its lofty aspirations or is it just an unnecessary remake from the House of Mouse?

THE STORY


In the Pride Lands, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is proud and benevolent king lion, welcoming his son, Simba (JD McCary / Donald Glover) to the kingdom in a presentation ceremony, with the shaman monkey Rafiki (John Kani) blessing him as the next in line to rule as king. Angered by the notion is Scar Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother and once heir to the Pride Land throne. Learning about his responsibilities while growing up, Simba makes friends with Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph / Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and remains managed by the Mufasa’s majordomo Zazu (John Oliver), but his curiosity gets the best of the young cub and is quickly targeted as prey by the trio of hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, and Keegan-Michael Key). When Scar manages to exact his revenge of Mufasa, he blames to fault on Sumba, who disappears from the Pride Lands, devastated by the event, and soon befriends the camaraderie companionship of the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who teach him the ways of the wild from a carefree perspective. As Scar ascends the now vacant throne, the Pride Lands fall into darkness, while Simba grows into a confused lion, ashamed of his past and unclear at what his future should be.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Remember who you are! The king has returned! Simba, it’s to die for! Long live the king! What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the hula!” Man….The Lion King definitely has so many great quotes. As you can imagine (from all my other Disney related posts), I grew up watching all things Disney in my youth, especially 1994’s The Lion King. I can really go on and on about how much the movie is great, how much I loved it, and why it’s still such a great masterpiece of children’s entertainment, but I mentioned a lot of that in my “cinematic flashback” review for the movie. Be sure to check it out…. (CLICK HERE). Suffice to say, The Lion King is truly a great movie and is its no wonder why its been revered since was released all the way back during the mid-90s. The story is iconic, the animation is beautiful, the voice acting was incredible, the songs are memorable, and practically everything about it showcases the pinnacle of Disney’s animation feature films. And, of course, with Disney being Disney, fully capitalized on the popularity of The Lion King has turned the 1994 film into a brand franchise…. like the ones I mentioned above. I do have to say that I’ve seeing the Broadway musical of The Lion King and it was pretty good. If you guys get the chance to see it….do so. In the end, say what you will about the movie (if you loved or hated it or just felt somewhere in-between those two), Disney’s 1994 animated classic The Lion King stands tall and proud as cinematic achievement in both animation movies and just in movies in general. I mean…. there’s definitely a reason why the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 2016.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about 2019’s The Lion King, a new visual updated version of the 1994 masterpiece. With Disney’s “current” renaissance era of reimagining some of its more popular and beloved animated tales into new cinematic endeavors, it was almost a forgone conclusion that the “House of Mouse” would eventually get around to doing a remake of their 32nd animated motion picture. Personally, due to how much I love the original film, I was super excited when Disney announced that they would releasing a remake of The Lion King, especially when I learned of the voice talents cast that Disney assembled to bring these iconic characters to life. Then the various pre-release marketing campaign (movie trailers, posters, TV spots, etc.) got me super hyped even more to see 2019’s The Lion King. So… finally…the day was here and I went to go see the movie on its opening weekend, hoping that anticipation will equally match what the actually film present itself to be. What did I think of it? Well, while its technical visual efforts are definitely the feature’s biggest draw, 2019’s The Lion King doesn’t really draw outside the lines of its predecessor. There’s plenty nuances and nostalgia for an enjoyable viewing experience, but not much in the way of originality and in separating itself from the 1994 masterpiece.

The Lion King is directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Disney’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book as well as other movies like Chef, Elf, and Iron Man. Given his prior knowledge of working on The Jungle Book (and the success that the feature has received), it seems like a no-brainer why Disney would select Favreau to direct this new remake of one of their most beloved animated movies of all time. To his credit, Favreau is a talented director and surely demonstrate that on The Lion King, helming a feature that boasts a lot of CGI effects and in anticipation with the public eye. Much of what many liked about the original movie is kept intact (something that Favreau certainly knows) and presents his version of the film with a sense of warm nostalgia of remembrance to all who loved 1994 animated film. What Favreau’s Lion King does great (and truly does shine) is in how the movie’s visual appeal is presented; utilizing the latest technology in CGI animation to bringing these classic Lion King characters in a brand-new way. Much like 2016’s The Jungle Book, the film gives the various 1994 animated cartoon characters a phot-realistic look to their correspondent animals; rendering all in such a hyper real way that it’s almost uncanny that didn’t use real animals for the feature. Of course, they did not, but it’s quite amazing to see these various African dwelling animals (i.e. lions, birds, monkeys, antelopes, giraffe, elephants, etc.) all rendered in the movie with such great detail. Even something like natural body movements of all these characters are all quite impressive to behold on-screen. Thus, regardless if this movie isn’t to you liking as much as the original animated film was, Favreau’s The Lion King is a sheer demonstration of how today’s current cinematic visuals can achieve through filmmaking entertainment. As a side-note, I will say that the movie is rated PG for a reason as some kids out there, despite them probably seeing the original 1994 film, might get a little scared at seeing of these characters realized in realistic way. 

What Favreau also makes interesting in his iteration of The Lion King is in cinematically feeling of various locales and vistas throughout the film’s setting (i.e. The Pride Lands). There’s definitely a beauty to all the various locations, which are breathtakingly natural and gorgeous to behold, and to how all the animals (regardless of species and of size difference) interact within this environment. Its all in the small detail moments that actually work, with Favreau “soaking up” these sequences with glee and cinematic magic.

Given the new representation of the film, 2019’s Lion King has all the nuances of the original, including the various songs featured in the 1994 film. Naturally, almost all of these songs are well-represented and definitely keeps the very “spirit” with the original Lion King film alive with its musical numbers. I mean…. hearing the “Circle of Life” with original vocalist Lebo M reprising his iconic vocal talents is definitely a treat as well as hearing all the other Lion King songs are just as timeless and memorable as they were back in 1994. Although, I was a bit disappointed with how “Be Prepared” was presented in the movie. Continuing with the feature’s nostalgia nuances, composer Hans Zimmer returns to the world of The Lion King to repurpose his incredibly beautiful film score for this new iteration. Regardless if you love or hate this movie, there’s no denying how much Zimmer’s classic Lion King score is just as melodically profound (dramatic and powerful) as it was back in the mid-90s.

Unfortunately, despite the lofty ambition of translating one of the most beloved animated movies of all time into a new cinematic remake, The Lion King falls short in the goal and creates several problems that hold it back. Perhaps the most problematic that many viewers out there will undoubtedly comes across with the movie is in narrative story. Naturally, what made the original film so great was how the movie’s story drew inspiration from various motifs and had a certain Shakespearean flavoring throughout (most notably from Hamlet). This was made even further realized that it was a narrative told within a children’s animated movie and how well-rounded and evenly keel pacing 1994’s The Lion King was, balancing drama, comedy, character, and plot points within an 88-minute runtime. The 2019’s version, however, doesn’t really deviate from its original source material, keeping pretty much everything “status quo” in translating The Lion King into a new interpretation. The problem? Well, the 2019 version feels very much the same and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. The film’s script, which was penned by Jeff Nathanson, is almost an exact duplicate of the original 1994 story / plot. There are one or two new scenes added, but majority of the Lion King’s story is exact the same…. from start to finish. In hindsight, a lot of these recent Disney remakes have added or expanded on its original source material by fleshing certain narrative storytelling moments and / or character developments, but also keeps the original story intact. Nathanson’s script for 2019’s The Lion King doesn’t do that and just carbon copies that entire story from the original 1994 film, with little innovation or creativity. Additionally, a great portion of the movie’s dialogue lines are ripped from the original film, which can be fun at certain points, but a lot of lines are almost verbatim…and that seems a bit lazy on Nathanson’s part.  

This also extends to Favreau’s idea to keep his version of Lion King almost the same as the animated movie. Yes, I understand that The Lion King is one of Disney’s most beloved animated movies of all time (and justly so), but a little bit creative energy is desperately needed Favreau’s iteration of the 1994 animated classic. A movie remake can’t run on nostalgia alone. This also continues down to Favreau’s decision to make a lot of more dramatic shots of the movie exactly the same as the original. Of course, the cinematography work by Caleb Deschanel is noted and does give some great small moments of greatness, but majority of these sequences are carbon copy shots from the 1994 film…to the point where it becomes a bit monotonous and lacks creativity on both Deschanel artistic nuances and in Favreau’s finesse. I mean…. if I wanted to see a “shot by shot” of The Lion King, I would’ve watched the original 1994 film.

So…. with the movie’s narrative being exactly the same, not adding and / or fleshing much to the story / plot, keeping much of the exact same dialogue lines, and taking a lot of cinematic / dramatic shots (frame by frame) from the original film….the really question remains…..why even update The Lion King? With the exception of translating the 2D animation to phot-realistic computer animation (as well as a new voice talents), 2019’s The Lion King plays too much on nostalgia from its 1994 original feature and doesn’t really “color outside the lines” from its already established groundwork presentation framework. In short, 2019’s The Lion King is incredibly beautiful, but ultimately unnecessary

Another problem with the movie (though it’s a minor one for me as I sort of expected it) was some of the stuff that gets lost in translating a 2D fanciful animation feature into a grounded and more photo-realistic iteration of the Lion King tale. What do I mean? Well, the original film (being an animated feature) has several sequences that incorporate some fanciful effects and shots, which certainly add a sort of dramatic effect, especially for being a Disney film. Naturally, with 2019’s The Lion King being more “rooted” into real-life nuances and believability, some of those fantastic elements are diluted and almost nonexistence in this version. Thus, those expecting the large-scale fanciful moments (like in the songs “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” or in “Be Prepared”) will be disappointed. To me, I expected it, so it didn’t bother me as much. Additionally, the film might be criticized by some viewers that the various characters in the movie don’t have the same type of facial expression that their 1994 animated counterpart were able to emote. Naturally, with the decision to make The Lion King’s characters more photo-realistically rendered in CGI animation, their facial rendering looks like…. well…. like real-life animals and not so much like cartoon anthropomorphic characteristics. The expressive nature of cartoon animals (i.e. larger eyes, more revealing mouths for talking, and sometimes human-like body movement) is replaced by a more believable nature of the various animal species. Thus, the facial rendering of some characters doesn’t quite match some of the more emotional moments of the film’s story scenes. Again, I sort of expected this (much like the case in 2016’s The Jungle Book), so it didn’t bother me as much, but it will bother some out there.

The cast in The Lion King is actually good, with most of giving solid performances in their respective roles and are probably the best cast selection since Disney’s 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast. Young actor JD McCrary (Little and The Paynes) and actress Shahadi Wright Joseph (Us and Hairspray Live!) do excellent jobs as the voices for the younger version of Simba and Nala. Both deliver a sense of youthful innocence and playfulness, which certainly helps the likeability within their respective characters. Plus, their joyful singing voice in “I Can’t Just Wait to be King” is really good. The voices for the adult version of Simba and Nala, who are voiced by actor Donald Glover (Community and Solo: A Star Wars Story) and musician popstar / icon Beyoncé, are perhaps the weakest voices in the movie. That’s not to say that Glover or Beyoncé give bad performances, but rather they are underutilized and don’t really stand out as much as their younger counterparts. Both get the right tone (i.e. a likeable and carefree voice for Simba, a regal and warmth for Nala) and can both definitely sing (and sing quite well in their rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, but they were just okay as I personally found that Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly the better voices for adult Simba and Nala respectfully.

Behind those characters is The Lion King’s main antagonist character of Scar, Simba’s villainous uncle and Mufasa’s brother, who is voiced by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave and Doctor Strange). Of course, actor Jeremy Irons, who originally voiced Scar in 1994 movie, will always be the better voice for Scar, Ejiofor does do an admirable and good job in bringing this character to life. Naturally, Ejiofor is a gifted actor and has a great sounding voice; bringing an almost Shakespearean pathos to Scar, which is kind of true. Thus, while some viewers might be disappointed that Scar isn’t voice by Irons, Ejiofor’s Scar is still really good. Although, I wasn’t quite keen on his rendition of “Be Prepared”, but that has to do more with Favreau’s direction in how that scene plays out than Ejiofor’s voice.

Who truly does standout in this remake (much like the original film) are the characters of Timon and Pumbaa, the comical / wisecracking meerkat and warthog that befriend Simba and guide him from childhood to adulthood. While actors Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella gave such great vocal performance to first bring these two characters to life, actors Billy Eichner (Parks and Recreation and Billy on the Street) and Seth Rogen (Knocked Up and The Long Shot) do a fantastically job in carrying on the comedic voices to these two respective Lion King characters. Their natural effects of Eichner’s combination of nervous and loud sounding voice and Rogen’s laidback / goofy voice definitely sells their interpretation of Timon and Pumbaa and their back and forth banter with each other. Plus, their iteration of “Hakuna Matata” is great!

Behind Rogen and Eichner, actor John Oliver (Community and Last Week with John Oliver) does a great job in voicing the character of Zazu, a yellow-billed hornbill bird who is the majordomo to the king of the Pride Lands. While not much new material is given to the character of Zazu (beyond one or two new scenes), Oliver’s voice and his delivery of lines makes the character quite memorable and I really couldn’t perfect anyone else (except original voice actor Rowan Atkinson) the role. Interestingly, the character of Sarabi, Mufasa’s wife and Simba’s mother, gets a little more screen-time in this version of The Lion King, with actress Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave and Star Trek: First Contact) giving a great performance in that role.

Additionally, the characters of Mufasa, Simba’s father / king of Pride Rock and who is once again played by legendary actor James Earl Jones (Star Wars and Field of Dreams) and Rafiki, the wise and spiritual shaman mandrill monkey who is voiced by actor John Kani (Black Panther and The Ghost and the Darkness) are rock solid in the poignant supporting roles. Although this new movie doesn’t really add much nuances to these characters from what the original movie laid out, Jones and Kani bring a sense of gravitas to the proceedings and deliver impeccable voiceover to their characters. I mean…come on….no one could do Mufasa’s voice except James Earl Jones. The rest of the supporting players, including actress Florence Kasumba (Black Panther and The Quest), actor Eric Andre (Man Seeking Woman and Disenchantment), and actor Keegan-Michael Key (Keanu and Pitch Perfect 2), who make up the trio of hyenas (Shenzi, Azizi, and Kamari) and give fine performance in the movie.

FINAL THOUGHTS


The king has returned to silver screen once again; bringing with it all the nostalgia and iconic imagery from the 1994 original film in the movie The Lion King. Director Jon Favreau latest film project sees Disney (going through its current trend) of reimagining its beloved animated features into updated remakes for new audiences to experience….in a brand-new cinematic light. Unfortunately, while Favreau’s passionate nostalgia intent is there, the translation doesn’t bring much to the table for moviegoers. Of course, the new photo-realistic visuals are incredibly impressive and the voice talents are solid across the board, but the celebrated narrative (and its dramatic shots and character dialogue) are left exactly the same as they were 25 years ago; rendering this remake perplexingly unnecessary. Personally, I liked the movie, but it’s hard to warrant a new iteration of this classic tale if the movie feels virtually identical to the original. To me, (as Disney remakes go), it’s definitely one of the better ones (the best of three 2019 remakes to be sure), but against the original 1994 animated film (considered to be one of the greatest animated movies of all time) it falls short. Still, I felt that the movie had plenty of nostalgia and entertainment throughout. Though, on the other hand, I still prefer the original animated movie over this new 2019 iteration. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both a “recommended” as well as a “iffy-choice” as viewing likeability of The Lion King is really in the “eye of the beholder” (some will like it, while others will have mixed feelings about it). In any case, with Disney’s continuing to expand upon its remakes trend (Mulan and The Little Mermaid on the horizon), it’s clear that the established Hollywood studio isn’t going stop anytime soon. In the end,The Lion King, despite its moviemaking pedigree and nostalgia accolades, stands as a cautionary reflection to the “House of Mouse”; echoing that fond past memories needs to stand on more than just simply that.

3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Iffy-Choice)

 

Released On: June 19th, 2019
Reviewed On: June 22nd, 2019

The Lion King  is 118 minutes long and is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements

4 comments

  • Nice review Jason. My kids have seen the toon a few times but I’ve never sat through it all. I just never had a desire to see it. However, like Beauty and the Beast that I’d never watched start to end, I think this will be good enough to let me see the Lion King story once and for all.

  • I’m of the mind that Disney and Jon Favreau put them selves in a no win scenario. I’m reading a lot of people saying this Lion King didn’t take enough risk there’s not a lot different from the original 1994 movie. Others are saying this movie is great and I realize movies are subjective.

    If Disney had taken to much of a risk and made this version of The Lion King to different from the 1994 version, I feel the ones who are complaining, maybe complaining is a bit strong, would be saying they didn’t stick to what made the original so great.

    Look i liked this version, I thought it was great. I actually liked it better then the 1994 film, but that’s just me. I just feel this version of the Lion King was a risk reward move on Disney’s part. If someone doesn’t like this version you still have the 1994 film, if you do like well you now have two versions to enjoy.

  • Went to see it in theaters in 3D and it was well worth it! Love this remake – even if it didn’t change anything (which I actually appreciated).

  • I found it to be one of Disney’s most unnecessary (and least original) remakes, but on the whole found it rather fun.

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