Movie Review: The Lion King
By Matthew Huntley
July 28, 2019
While watching “The Lion King” (2019), a young couple sat to my left, eagerly anticipating the movie’s famous songs, sometimes going so far as to sing the lyrics just before they played. And to my right sat three teenage friends, who occasionally whispered such comments as (and I’m paraphrasing here), “That’s just like the cartoon!”
I’ve a feeling most people will watch this “photorealistic, computer-animated” version of the traditionally animated classic the same way as my fellow audience members, with the ability to recite and recall almost everything about the 1994 original with relative ease, and then take temporarily solace in the fact the remake realizes the story in more or less the same fashion.
“The Lion King” is one of those movies that just about everybody has seen. It’s the quintessential “comfort movie,” with its classical yet still compelling narrative; its vast and colorful imagery; its mostly cheerful and only sometimes tragic tones; and its healthy mix of action, humor and romance. It’s no wonder the film was so well received when it debuted 25 years ago and has stood the test of time, thriving in several other forms, from direct-to-video sequels and TV shows to a wildly successful Broadway musical.
But back to this latest rendition, and notice I wrote that viewers will only take “temporarily solace” in it, because even though I think people will mildly enjoy this update, I also think their satisfaction will be short-lived. That’s often the case when any remake merely meets our expectations without offering much in the way of surprises. I too sat in the theater thinking, this is when the sun rises and “Circle of Life” plays, and this is when Timon says, “Nothing, what’s the motto with you?” Then those things happened, and then…well, they happened, and that was about it. They happened…just like I thought they would.
What’s missing after the statement, “Then those things happened,” is the word “but…” or “and…”, followed by some new or interesting development of the story. But the movie is essentially the original “Lion King,” only in different visual form, with the catch being it’s supposed to be more realistic-looking than its predecessor. And for the record, the movie’s look is sharp, exquisite and often wondrous to behold. The African landscapes are highly detailed and render magnificently on the big screen, and the animal characters, even in close-up, are palpable and appear about as real as any actual creature.
Ironically, though, and part of what makes this newest “Lion King” such a disappointment, is that in its effort to look and feel real, it inadvertently creates a sense of detachment from the characters and drama. Traditionally drawn animation, through its deliberate intentions to create a world that’s surreal and make-believe, has the inherent advantage of automatically getting us to suspend our feelings of disbelief and easily accept the personification of animals. But in this case, when the recreation of reality is one of the movie’s main selling points, watching the animals talk looks awkward and we can’t shake the fact it goes against nature. It’s not cute and entertaining so much as much as it is strange, even disturbing. Oftentimes, it looks like real animals were filmed and their images later doctored with moving mouths and body parts. It just doesn’t look or feel right. A movie like “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” which was actually live-action, also featured talking animals, but they communicated with one another not by moving their mouths but through some sort of animal telepathy. This I could accept and it’s even fun to believe animals really do this, but watching photorealistic animals talking and singing isn’t as fun.
I might have been able to forgive the film for the visual uneasiness its creates—and for the record, sometimes I was—had the story engaged me more, but because I’m one of millions who knows “The Lion King” by heart, it would have taken a lot for Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay to really surprise me. And what’s unfortunate is the filmmakers, led by director Jon Favreau, seem to think we simply want to see and experience what we already know, but they’re mistaken.
During this recent trend of Disney live-action remakes of animated classics, the best have been those that put a different narrative spin on old material (“The Jungle Book”, “Aladdin”), not just a visual one, and sadly, “The Lion King” isn’t among them. It’s practically a shot-by-shot, dialogue-for-dialogue carbon copy, with just a different veneer.
The movie once again tells the coming-of-age story of a lion cub named Simba, whose father, Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones), is king of the Pride Lands and rules “everything the light touches,” including all the animals who inhabit it. Simba will one day take the throne and initially thinks a king can simply do whatever he wants, but over the course of the story, he realizes a true king is measured by his compassion toward others and how he lives up to his personal responsibility. In Simba’s case, his arduous journey begins after the death of Mufasa, which his evil Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes him believe he caused.
It was always the solemn material and earnest message of “The Lion King” that made it so special and set it apart from the typically jolly, kid-oriented Disney fare. And just like the original, this new “Lion King” balances its gravity with lighter moments of song, dance, humor, and romance, courtesy of a long line of diverse supporting characters, including Zazu the hornbill (John Oliver), the talky yet loyal advisor to the king; Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), Mufasa’s wife and Simba’s loving mother; Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), the childhood friend and eventual love interest to adult Simba (Donald Glover); Rafiki (John Kani), the sage mandrill who bestows wisdom on Simba and also has a knack for the martial arts; a pack of ruthless, wandering hyenas (Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André), who scheme with Scar to kill Mufasa and Simba; and of course, Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), the meerkat-warthog duo who befriend Simba after he’s ostracized and introduce him to the carefree lifestyle philosophy of “Hakuna Matata.”
Everything we get from this new “Lion King” was to be expected, which is also what’s wrong with it. Sure, it has a dazzling new look, but it’s not necessarily a better look, and like I said, the moving mouths on the animals sometimes proved distracting. This is all even more of a shame to report because, being a fan favorite and worldwide cultural phenomenon, “The Lion King” will inevitably gross millions and provide Disney executives further evidence that fans merely want more of what they’ve already gotten, with only slight variations. This may be what some viewers think they want (after all, “comfort movies” do serve a purpose), but I think what they really desire is to be challenged and presented an alternate take on the old material, or better yet, new material altogether. The movie is safe, easy and heartening to be sure, but is it really exciting? The magic and appeal of any story stems from the simple notion we don’t know what’s going to happen or how, and unless one is completely foreign to the original “Lion King” going into the remake, it has little magic and appeal to speak of.