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Review: The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019)

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Premise: A remake of the 1994 animated film. Set in the plains of Africa, lion cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary) is to inherit the kingship from his father but Simba’s uncle Scar (voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots to overthrow the king and take the throne.

What Works: Whatever else is to be said about the 2019 version of The Lion King, this film is an extraordinary technical achievement and were this an original story the film would be hailed as such. 1994’s The Lion King was a work of traditional animation. The remake is still technically an animated feature but it is rendered through photo-realistic digital tools. Images from this version of The Lion King are so lifelike that they could pass as documentary footage shot in the wild. Not since 2009’s Avatar has there been an animated film with this level of detail and texture. The Lion King also has an impressive voice cast and the actors are well matched with their roles. James Earl Jones reprises his role as Mufasa and as in the 1994 film Jones’ vocal possesses a benevolent sternness. New to this version is John Oliver as Zazu, a red-billed hornbill bird who is majordomo to Mufasa and later to Simba. Oliver brings a lot of humor to the part as do Seth Rogen as Pumbaa the warthog and Billy Eichner as Timon the meerkat. Rogan and Eichner are unique in the film because of their self-awareness—they occasionally wink and nod at the audience—but also because Rogan and Eichner distinguish their characters from their 1994 equivalents. 

What Doesn’t: The 2019 version of The Lion King is yet another remake of a Disney animated feature and this one—perhaps even more than 2017’s Beauty and the Beast—rehashes the original story without bringing anything new to it. This is fundamentally the same story but The Lion King often feels less like an unfolding drama and more like a checklist of plot points. A few scenes have been added, padding out the running time by thirty minutes, but the additions don’t deepen the characters or change the story; the excessive length just reveals how much more economical the 1994 movie was in its storytelling. The most useful way to understand 2019’s The Lion King is as a translation; the filmmakers have converted this story from traditional animation to the style of live action. But the change in the medium creates all sorts of new problems for the story while exacerbating the flaws of the original. The animals are presented in a photo-realistic style which means that most of them are incapable of facial expressions and other humanistic displays of emotion. Having these animals talk and sing works against the realistic style of the movie and so The Lion King is in a constant struggle with itself, unable to reconcile the story with the style in which it is told. That’s especially evident in the musical numbers which are entirely inferior to the 1994 film. The animals can’t dance and sing without betraying the realistic style and there’s no showmanship to the musical set pieces. The remake also draws attention to some of the flaws of the original story. Nala, the female lead and love interest, was underutilized in the 1994 version and that’s even more obvious in the remake where Nala is voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter; the presence of one of the most popular entertainers in the world in such a paltry role highlights that weakness. For that matter, most of the lead characters of this version are uninteresting. Scar is just a generic villain and the adult Simba is bland. The rehashed and protracted story, unexpressive characters, and lackluster music results in a film that is overly familiar but not emotionally engaging.  

Bottom Line: The remake of The Lion King is a strange mix of technical mastery and crass commercial calculation. Its visual effects are astonishing but they are also a lesson in the limits of realism. Ultimately, none of this film’s technical wizardry can disguise the fact that this story was done better the first time around.

Episode: #759 (July 28, 2019)