Film Review – The Lion King (2019)

If you’ve seen someone on the internet hate on the live-action Disney remakes raise your hand in the air. Yes, at this point we’re all familiar with the criticism, and for reasons many of us agree with. I always hated the idea of remastering old animated classics and updating them to suit real life. You could see the little care put into turning out the same magic we once fell in love with. Every single one of these movies aside from maybe Cinderella (2015) has been a lifeless take on something that should burst with vibrancy and wonder. So with the release of a new The Lion King I thought the same fate would hold true. I did not expect to be wrong.

The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed By: Jon Favreau

Written By: Jeff Nathanson

Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyonce, and James Earl-Jones

We all know the story for this one. There comes a day when a lion cub must rise to his heritage and pick up the mantle of the king from his father (Earl-Jones). Before that, he (Glover) must first sing Hakuna Matata with a meerkat (Eichner), a warthog (Rogen) and learn that with great power there must also come great responsibility. If you don’t know the rest, it’s best you find out for yourself.

Backstory

I blame this all on Alice in Wonderland’s (2010) massive $1 billion gross which set the bar for subpar live-action remakes in the years to come. (It is worth noting, however, that The Lion King is not a live-action film, but obviously in the same vein as the recent Disney remakes.) Since that first Alice movie, we’ve had nothing short of awful or mediocre films such as MaleficientChristopher RobinAladdin, and The Jungle Book. Of course, nothing tops the grand-daddy of these unbearable films — Beauty and the Beast. With such a poor track record, the Internet quickly caught on with the hate.

The reality, on the other hand, is quite the contrary. Audiences rush to theaters and walk out with hearts filled to the brim with joy. The trick was simple: weaponize nostalgia. If we take a look at the lesser-known idea for the sequel to the Alice live-action film called Alice Through the Looking Glass, you’ll notice the film bombed as it didn’t have an animated classic to boost off of. Then you look at a property that audiences don’t have any connection to such as Pete’s Dragon, and the numbers for that film didn’t look too swell either. Instead, it’s the biggest Disney properties that, despite harsh criticism, are the most financially successful.

With nostalgia one shall reign supreme and boy, did The Lion King have an unlimited amount of it. You don’t get more Disney than Simba, Hakuna Matata and “long live the king”.

With this being the remake of a beloved classic, one would think that this was my moment to share my problems with the entire live-action remake movement. There’s one thing getting in the way of that, though: I actually liked this movie.

Visual Precision

The Lion King

image via Polygon

The Lion King is a gorgeous, photorealistic recreation of the original. There are plenty of opinions out there telling us whether it’s a good or a bad thing. Regardless of your hot take, there’s no denying the work of MPC, a visual effects company responsible for showing us the next step in CGI. The movie in its entirety is a special effect which is a feat of its own. The only times I noticed animals appearing unrealistically are in some scenes with the lion cubs or Pumbaa.

This film doesn’t fill every frame with lively, warm colors, and that’s okay. I feel like that’s justifiable taking into account the need to sacrifice a bit of that when aiming for something to look real; others may not feel the same way. What makes up for that are the stunning visuals of up-close nature and vast landscapes.

The Lion King

image via ScreenRant

I would marvel over the starry sky, wow at the detail of the mice and take joy in watching iconic scenes that would look more realistic yet uniformly compelling. Unlike something like Beauty and the Beast with its realistic yet empty character design, this time around the heartbeat of the original finds its way onto the screen. This is where the team over at Disney works towards executing creative visual ideas to compensate for the freedom of cartoon animation they don’t have. It’s something special, especially when they can add a bit of cinematic flair on top of it. It’s accomplished sometimes by simply adding a lightning strike, which can elevate the mood that much more.

You can tell their ideas were thought through carefully even if the limitations of striving for realism eventually catch up to them. There’s a lot of performance these animals should be doing, as funny as it may sound. There are lots of human emotions here at play which that the animals do not convey at all. Often, the animals are not in sync with some of the vivid voice acting. A character can go through the most traumatic experience of their life, they might sound in distress, but they will still have the blankest expression on their face.

It’s something that takes getting used to as an audience member, though it didn’t end up spoiling the entirety of the movie for me. Still, I can’t help but think Favreau missed a creative opportunity here. Why not play around with different body language or change the camera’s perspective? Just something that would indicate the feelings these characters are experiencing! Where is all that flair I was earlier talking about?

A Successful Reimagining

The Lion King

image via Pride

What I hate about the majority of the Disney remakes is that they constantly alter the source material just for the sake of it. Those changes often don’t add anything to the story itself — kind of like Belle’s mother and the Paris subplot. They’re distracting, time-consuming and annoying. It’s even those little tweaks that only exist to address some of the online nonsense or pretend to course correct it. Thankfully none of that is here.

Even if 2019’s The Lion King movie is almost a shot-for-shot carbon copy, the biggest problems of most vocal critics in the past were those unnecessary changes. I can’t say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it,” and then cross my arms in anger when Disney eventually listens. I have to own up to my arguments even if I’d prefer to not have these new films at all. Now, it would also be wrong to praise the engaging story since it’s not technically theirs from start. What I will celebrate, however, is the fact the filmmakers didn’t take away from it. The movie might be thirty minutes longer, but it uses it to develop its characters and highlight the expansive world.

The biggest surprise of watching the film was finding myself experiencing the same feelings as I did in my youth. I wasn’t alone, the crying adult man in the row in front of me ensured me of that.

Remarkable Talent

The Lion King

image via slashfilm

Whoever’s idea it was to cast Donald Glover as the voice of Simba needs a raise. There aren’t many actors who can sound young and also avoid sounding too childlike. On top of that, Glover does a great job bringing forward the character’s likability and sincerity. The voice is such a match and it flourishes during the musical numbers.

Now, contrast that with Nala who at times sounds like she smokes fifteen packs a day. Beyonce is a talented singer and a successful composer, but she is not well-suited for acting, even in voicework. Every time adult Nala would speak you would only hear Beyonce. I had the same problem with John Oliver’s Zazu, only his way of speaking and tonality didn’t stick out as much as she did.

The remaining cast is nothing short of amazing. Still, I feel the need to single out Billy Eichner as Timon. His performance was a major surprise that made me laugh out loud throughout all of his scenes (excluding one with a ridiculous reference). Eichner had the most original lines in the movie and I think a lot of it has to do with making the role his own. Of course, Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa assists in bringing the iconic friendship trio alive and doing it justice.

The Lion King

image via CBR

Meanwhile, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar makes for the right successor to the role. I didn’t think anyone could articulate themselves as fiercely as Jeremy Irons did, but the actor had no issues in bringing out the Scar’s billowing hatred. His Scar is less suspicious, extravagant, mischievous, and more ruthless, bitter and cruel. It’s an effective, slight change of direction for the character that works in favor of the film.

Musical Choices

“Can you feel the love tonight?”, “Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”, “It means no worries,” are lyrics familiar to so many people around the world. I could probably walk up to any person, casually drop a word or two and hear a response picking up where I left off. This iteration of The Lion King has plenty of those famous melodies, only not quite the same.

“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is one of the most romantic songs in film.”I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” brims with energy and life. Here, there’s a lot walking, sitting, blank staring and nothing much else. If I were to remove the audio from both the original and the remake, only one of them would still have that bouyant, musical feel.

image via Vice

I hate to pick on her again, but Beyonce spoils a good portion of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. We first have Donald Glover killing it with a simple, calm voice. Then comes Beyonce harmonizing at the end of every second bar, trying to show off her talent we all know she has. Someone should have told her to dial it down a bit. This is an intimate song between two lovers, not an audition for The Voice.

Her new original song for the movie “Spirit” sounds wonderful on its own. In the film, they play it at the worst possible moment. Honestly, the pop number could have only worked during the credits. She overpowers the film in a way fellow A-lister Donald Glover avoids.

Thankfully, there are songs in the film that do hit the sweet spot. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s maniacal dialect elevates “Be Prepared” in its own dark and twisty arrangement. Then we have “Hakuna Matata” which exactly captures the sheer joy and fun that comes by singing that number in a subtle self-aware manner. Timon and Pumbaa even sell the beginning of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”.

And obviously, “Circle of Life”. The opening of the movie is powerful with little to no deviations from the original. It’s one of those scenes in cinema that speaks to everyone regardless of language, beliefs or world views. I’m glad Favreau knew that just as he did with the majority of the film.

Final Thoughts

image via IMDb

Of course, if it came to a choice between the two I would favor rewatching the 1994 classic. There’s no denying the 2019 version may be a part of a modern trend that is increasingly frustrating and irrelevant. This film, however, offers a different perspective to a world that a few years ago no one would actually expect Disney to make. It honors its predecessor, achieves its essence and gives us the likes of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner and the other voice cast in their respective roles.

I’m open to seeing it again someday which is more than I could say for the rest of these modern knock-offs. I would still prefer to end the production on rest of the remakes in the pipeline. The Lion King (2019) is the exception, not the rule.

Grade: B


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2 Responses

  1. Denise says:

    I really liked it and I usually avoid remakes.

  2. Nick Kush says:

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