The Lion King is a masterpiece, a visual marvel far ahead of its time. It borrows from the Bard’s Hamlet, freshening up the story for a new audience. Its voice talent is, without exception, well-selected, and their intonations add depth to the animation. And the music is some of the best in Disney’s vast filmography. In fact, it’s probably my favorite Disney movie of all time.
The Lion King (2019) is not that movie.
Oh sure, it tries hard to be. In fact, it tries so hard that 90% of the film amounts to a shot-for-shot remake of the original animated classic. Not even Aladdin or The Jungle Book or even Dumbo – none of its prior live action remakes – stooped to that level.
I assume this occurred because director Jon Favreau was either too lazy to change anything substantial or too scared to alter the plot in a way that could drive filmgoers away. This decision produces the most safe version of this Disney Live Action endeavor, a by-the-numbers, unmemorable film that I’m glad to never watch again.
But I didn’t hate the film. As fathers everywhere say, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
First off, this isn’t simply a pale imitation of The Lion King, it’s a colorful one. The visuals are stunning, astounding, a feat of animation. The animals look perfectly real. I’m not sure they could be improved.
Yet even this has some downside. The animated original was art, flowing and poppy. This movie is realistic to a fault, stripping the gonzo palette out of its source material and replacing it with the tones and moods of nature.
Real animals do not have a wide range of facial emotions. The human voice does. And thus, we have a natural problem: the beautifully rendered fauna’s expressions often do not match the expressive voices emanating from their mouths. And expressive they are. Besides Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a massive downgrade from Jeremy Irons), the cast is on par with or better than their original counterparts. Hearing James Earl Jones take on the role of Mufasa again was a special treat, even if (here we are again) I prefer his more vibrant original performance.
And about the script: it’s mostly the old one. I faulted this decision earlier, but here’s the funny part – the changes Favreau and his team made are usually for the worse. Scar and Mufasa’s original encounter comes off differently, Scar’s spectacular villain song is abbreviated for no good reason, some pop song plays rather than epic African choral music as Simba runs back to Pride Rock. And even though Timon and Pumbaa are actually a lot more tolerable and funny this time around, a few joke changes do not land – like Timon refusing to censor his friend before he mentions his, um, digestive issues. Completely unnecessary.
And that’s my feeling about this film: unnecessary. The changes made did not need to occur, but if there’s no changes, what need does this film have to exist at all?
It’s a rhetorical question. It doesn’t.
That’s why I err more toward the “Disney were lazy” as opposed to “Disney was scared” side of the debate, if there is one. Disney made changes. Those changes were deliberate. They were also mostly slapdash, uncanny mess-making in the name of improvement. Most of the things you’ll enjoy in The Lion King (2019) you already liked in The Lion King. Just watch that.