The Lion King (2019) is the CG remake of Disney’s 1994 animated masterpiece and is directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed Disney’s GC Jungle Book remake from 2016. This story, for the few readers who are somehow unfamiliar with the original film, revolves around the young lion Simba (Donald Glover) who must overcome the tragic loss of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and take his rightful place as king of the African Pride Lands.
Although I remember liking Favreau’s Jungle Book remake, I was still skeptical about a Lion King remake because the original is my all-time favorite Disney movie, and I can still watch it over and over again. Nonetheless, I was willing to give this new iteration a chance with the hope that it would pleasantly surprise me. On a related note this review will contain spoilers for both movies, not only because the original is an iconic twenty-five year-old blockbuster that millions of people should have already seen by now, but also because this remake barely makes an effort to distinguish itself from its beloved predecessor.
One positive comment I can make that I know everyone else will echo is how jaw-droppingly beautiful this movie looks. It’s definitely not live action, but the character designs and locations are so detailed and photorealistic that audiences will almost certainly believe that they are watching actual animals roam around a real African savannah. Credit should absolutely go to the animators who worked countless hours perfecting these visuals and I do hope that Disney puts this talent and technology to use for an original property. The one downside to this realism, however, is that the animals don’t show nearly as many facial expressions as their hand-drawn counterparts, making them harder to invest in. For example, Simba has a blank face first when he sees the stampede of wildebeest because the photorealistic animation ironically prevents this talking animal from properly expressing realistic emotions.
In terms of music, the remake doesn’t differ much from its predecessor but somehow falters as a result. Hans Zimmer returns to compose the remake’s musical score with the help of fellow producer Pharrell Williams, while writing duo Elton John and Tim Rice also return to provide new versions of classic songs. While these compositions are reworked iterations of the original score, they do not pack the same emotional punch of those old tracks, probably because the new compositions aren’t much different. Hearing “The Circle of Life” again and watching the gorgeous sequence that accompanied it was fun to the point where I quietly sung along, which I might’ve done with any versions of this song and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” but most of the other covers range from okay to bad. The worst offender is “Be Prepared,” which lacks the charm and energy of the original song’s menacing tune. New songs include Beyoncé’s “Spirit,” Elton John’s “Never Too Late,” and Lebo M’s cover of “Mbube,” the last two songs play during the credits whereas “Spirit” replaces the composition of “This is My Home” when Simba runs through the desert back to Pride Rock. That’s a shame because “Spirits” is a generic pop tune that fails to accurately represent what Beyoncé is capable of as a musician.
The new voice cast includes a wide variety of talented A-list actors—Beyoncé as Nala, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, and John Kani as Rafiki among others—but they simply don’t hold a candle to the original voice actors. That’s not to say they aren’t good, but I don’t think they’ll become synonymous with the characters they are portraying. In fact, I was most disappointed in Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, who does not bring the sly and intimidating presence that Jeremy Irons gave in his performance. Similarly, James Earl Jones is the only voice actor from the original Lion King to reprise his role, but he sounds so much older as Mufasa. That’s unfortunately not a compliment, as Jones’s deep, booming voice from 1994 is not as apparent here even when he recites iconic lines from the original film. I know that Jones is associated with the character of Mufasa but if Disney brought him back for their remake, then why not bring back Jeremy Irons whose Scar is just as, if not more, iconic?
Speaking of villains, The Lion King‘s hyenas are meant to be more frightening but they still include two comedic relief characters Kamari (Keegan Michael-Key) and Azizi (Eric André)- who are respectively different versions of Banzai and Ed- that make the pack less threatening. Not to mention Key and André shockingly don’t have great comedic chemistry together. Fortunately, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa deliver the best performances in the film. Most of their lines are hilarious and they have much better chemistry than Key and André. John Oliver as Zazu was also funny although the character comes off as slightly more foolish in this version and makes me wonder why he is Mufasa’s messenger this time around.
Going into The Lion King, one of my and many other fans’ concerns was that it would simply be a shot-for-shot remake of the original Lion King. It mostly is. The Lion King follows the same beats and replicates the same iconic moments of its predecessor so nothing will seem surprising in this film. Watching Mufasa fall to his death here was not nearly as impactful as it was in the original film or even in the Broadway musical, which I’ll admit made me cry when I was much younger. The remake’s dialogue exchanges are different from the original, some scenes play out differently, and two or three new scenes have been added, but that isn’t enough. In fact, many of the new changes do not work, such as replacing the technicolor backgrounds from the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” musical number with plain backgrounds that look real but strip the sequence of what made it so captivating in the first place.
I understand that Disney wants to separate this remake from the original and make it more serious but, as a result, The Lion King (2019) lacks any soul or personality to justify its existence outside of the amazing visuals and Disney wanting to cash in on the original film’s success. The more I think about this remake, the more I would rather watch the original. Maybe I’d see it in IMAX if my uncle really wants to go.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
I know this review sounds harsh but that’s because The Lion King (2019) disappointed me. It offers beautiful animation but not much else of value. Younger audiences who never saw the 1994 Lion King will probably love this remake but everyone else will likely be unaffected by it.