The third of 2019’s “live action” Disney remakes, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King tells the story of lion cub Simba (JD McCrary) who is prepared by his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) to one day take over kingship of the Pride Lands. But Simba’s bitter uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has designs on the throne and when he orchestrates a terrible tragedy, Simba runs away from his home and his responsibilities, taken in by meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) who teach him about a life of “Hakuna Matata” and no obligations, but is soon found by childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) and the wise Rafiki (John Kani) and soon, the adult Simba (Donald Glover) must confront his uncle and take his place in the circle of life.
With the Disney remake train well and truly underway, the 1994 classic is the latest to receive the “live action” treatment and though the prospect of redoing one of my all time favourite Disney films, one that’s widely considered to be a crown jewel of the Disney renaissance era, could be considered a very worrying thing indeed, I actually had every confidence in Jon Favreau as his version of The Jungle Book was a very refreshing remake that looked glorious, had tons of colour and energy, boasted a stellar cast, and seemed to add more of Kipling’s original story into the mix, resulting in a film that felt truly original and imaginative. But then I was made aware of some negative feedback that the film has received (though, as of this moment, I haven’t actually read any reviews or anything – I’m just going by general social media feedback), with viewers claiming that the film lacks soul and purpose – staying too close to the original by virtually being a shot-for-shot remake, not bringing anything new to the table and lacking the emotion and heart of the original.
Having now seen the film myself, I’d agree that the biggest downside is a relative lack of emotion (though not totally) as the characters don’t emote properly, plus the musical numbers can be a little troublesome, but the film is technically amazing and it is nonetheless an exciting and dramatic film with an able cast that honours the original very well and successfully updates and modernises it for today’s audiences.
Getting the biggest negative out of the way first, the film’s biggest flaw is that, even though the animals are designed brilliantly, looking incredibly authentic and realistic, this actually backfires somewhat because the creatures/characters don’t display nearly enough of the necessary emotions and even though the voice actors may give everything they have, and though the accompanying score may stir the emotions, the characters’ faces remain blank and expressionless for the vast majority of the film and because of this, we aren’t fully able to empathize with the characters, the difference between how the animals look and how they’re voiced is distracting, and attempts to coax emotions out of the audience therefore don’t work as well as they should. Definitely not in the way that the 1994 film did so excellently.
The film also encounters a little trouble when it comes to the musical numbers; on the one hand, it actually does a good job when it comes to “Circle of Life” (that song and that opening sequence will never NOT give me chills – it’s fundamentally amazing and it’s hard to go wrong with it) and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” as they’re both sung brilliantly and the sequences are shot and directed with passion and energy (the latter, in particular), but numbers like “Be Prepared” and “Hakuna Matata” are a bit more troublesome as Chiwetel Ejiofor and Seth Rogen don’t sing them particularly well and in contrast, actors like Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Billy Eichner perhaps go a bit too far and overdo the singing, adding too many different notes until it becomes distracting. “Be Prepared” is indeed the worst culprit because, in contrast to the universally admired original, the new version is completely lifeless, boring and way too brief and it’s clear that Chiwetel Ejiofor wasn’t comfortable with the prospect of singing, eventually opting to speak-sing virtually all of the song, which sounded incredibly bland and disappointing.
But despite these flaws, The Lion King still manages to be a very worthy update of the original and although it perhaps plays things a little safe by following the original script and shooting scenes in the same manner as before, the film still sticks the landing and provides audiences with a very good looking film that provides enough entertainment, drama, fun and adventure for audiences. And what The Lion King has going for it above everything else is its special effects and its technical presentation because, despite the expressionless faces, the photorealistic animation is nigh on flawless and it’s clear that so much hard work went in to making the film look as gorgeous as possible. In it, we see how well designed the animals are, with the rendering of hair and realistic animal behaviour (ear twitching galore!) being particularly noteworthy, and the film also treats us to many lovely looking locations and sets that are full of colour and all in all, the design team successfully manage to bring the beloved Disney tale into the 21st century. The cinematography is a joy and it’s all edited smoothly as well – with fade transitions used to help create a most pleasant viewing experience.
Unlike 2016’s The Jungle Book, which practically came up with a whole new script and only shared one similar line of dialogue with its 1960s predecessor, Jeff Nathanson’s 2019 script contains a great deal of the same lines as the original and follows the narrative path very closely, while also changing lines and adding in new ones occasionally and objectively, this is indeed a flaw as the film doesn’t push the boat out enough and doesn’t take as big a risk as it did with The Jungle Book but honestly, it didn’t really bother me as the original version wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind and as the original script worked so brilliantly anyway, hearing it again in 2019 was no bad thing! The occasional changes to the script don’t always work though – the whole Scar/Sarabi “you chose him” was particularly unnecessary – and the comedy often sadly falls flat as well, not being as innovative or as genuinely smile inducing as the original. And although the story of The Lion King is fundamentally rock solid and you couldn’t really go wrong if you copied it, the film loses steam and energy about halfway through and it can seem like a case of it “going through the motions” – covering familiar story beats as it marches on towards the ending.
Once again, Jon Favreau has assembled (ha!) an all star cast to provide the voices for the film and in particular, JD McCrary provides tons of youthful energy, as well as credible sadness and grief, in his role of young Simba, James Earl Jones is of course incomparable as Mufasa, Florence Kasumba benefits from having a particularly meaty role as Shenzi – a different kind of character to Whoopi Goldberg’s original incarnation -, actors like John Oliver, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner and Keegan Michael-Key essentially play themselves, fun sports though they are, and Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter are solid enough as adult Simba and Nala, though they don’t actually have much heavy lifting to do and they fulfill their roles well without setting the screen alight. But unfortunately, Chiwetel Ejiofor fares the worst and is miscast as the villainous Scar; true, he captures the character’s smooth, confident and quietly manipulative nature occasionally but overall, he doesn’t make a big enough impact and doesn’t threaten, intimidate or provide much depth or intrigue to the popular villain.
So despite holding the 1994 Lion King in extremely high regard, I got on very well with the 2019 incarnation. I know I should penalise it for copying the original too much but honestly, I didn’t really care as it’s been a while since I saw the original and watching this in the cinema was like a blast from the past, reminding me of how fundamentally excellent the story and characters are. It’s not as refreshingly original as The Jungle Book but it’s an improvement on this year’s Dumbo and Aladdin, as well as 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.
And I repeat: listening to “Circle of Life” and witnessing that opening sequence, be it in the original or in this new version, will never NOT give me chills.