The king has returned. But were you eager for his return? If you’re like most of America, then your answer is probably yes. If you’re like many film critics though, then probably not so much. And I can understand their lack of enthusiasm. As the latest example in a long line of classic Disney animated works rebooted to live action, nostalgia and reverence for the past are milked for profit, while innovation and imagination are falling to the wayside. When it comes to 2019’s The Lion King, the special effects are a technical marvel, but a sense of creativity is nowhere to be found.
Roaring into theaters in 1994, the original Lion King stands today as one of Disney’s most cherished animated classics among contemporary audiences. The film followed up The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to achieve unprecedented success during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. The movie entered production during the same time period as 1995’s Pocahontas, and due to the buzz surrounding that film, Pocahontas attracted many of Disney’s top animators, leaving The Lion King up to first-time directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.
The gamble paid off, and even though The Lion King relied on two untried directors, and moreover, was released during the previously untested season for animation of summer – the film was a box office gargantuan, earning the record of highest gross for the entire year. The hype was not unfounded either. Creatively, the film was bursting with brash bravado – just look at the confidence in that exhilarating opening scene. Drawing on the epic stories of Hamlet and Moses, Disney had offered more depth than here, but rarely with such fiery emotional intensity.
So considering the original’s timeless replay value, not to mention our culture’s overpowering, even if sometimes unwarranted, respect for the 1994 classic, Jon Favreau’s 2019 live action remake has some daunting shoes to fill, more so than Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin from May, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast from 2017, and certainly more so than the Iron Man director’s 2016 vision of The Jungle Book, which empowered our current era of reboot madness. If faithfulness is your metric for success, then Favreau has done it. But if it’s creativity, he most definitely has not.
If you’ve seen the original, you already know what happens. The lion Mufasa (James Earl Jones), king of Pride Rock and the surrounding lands, gives birth to a son, Simba (JD McCrary) with his wife Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). His brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), forever embittered by Mufasa’s claim to the throne, hatches a scheme to seize it: by staging a wildebeest stampede, he has his brother killed, and charges his hyena underlings with murdering the king’s son. When Simba goes off a cliff, the minions consider the job as good as done, but the prince isn’t dead yet.
Simba, blaming himself for Mufasa’s death due to a mischaracterization of the events by his Uncle Scar, flees into exile, and embarks on a carefree new life of “Hakuna Matata” in the jungle with his new friends, a meerkat and warthog Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Years later (now Donald Glover), visits from old friends Nala (Beyoncé) and the shaman primate Rafiki (John Kani), as well as a vision from his father, motivate him to re-evaluate his situation, and he rushes back to Pride Rock to confront Scar and re-claim his crown as the Lion King.
If you’re looking to re-experience some of the same thrills of what is now a 25-year-old animated classic, then you definitely will. The exception here is that there is perhaps a more muted sense of energy this time around, whether it’s due to an exercise in repetition, or whether it’s from the added padding to stretch what was originally a lean, mean 88 minutes, to a protracted 118 to better fit the standards of live action. I’d say it’s the latter, as having seen the original countless times over the years, additional viewings surely don’t rob the film of its power.
But even as invigorating as that original classic will always be, it still lacks narrative complexity, as it moves through a sweeping chronicle of events at a brisk pace, forcing its characters to be, while iconic, simplistic nonetheless. This is where Favreau’s Lion King saw opportunity: to both offer nostalgia, and to reinterpret a beloved story from a more insightful, and perhaps even an alternate perspective. Unfortunately, due to the rabid cultural hype surrounding this project, it’s evident Disney enforced harsh creative control to make sure not a single purist was offended.
But though the film doesn’t veer from the original’s script hardly at all, it does seize the chance to improve on some of the questionable racial sensitivity displayed in the 1994 version. While Mufasa and Sarabi were voiced by actors of African-American descent, the adult Simba was portrayed by a white Matthew Broderick. His voice work on that film was excellent, but the concept of a white man inheriting what symbolized the throne of Africa was rather disturbing. Here, Disney casts Donald Glover as the adult Simba, though the results are rather mixed.
The same could be said about the highly-anticipated casting of Beyoncé as Nala, as she barley makes an impression. Some new additions who don’t disappoint however, are the lively Billy Eichner as Timon, as well as the impeccably-cast Seth Rogen, who was clearly born to play a warthog. Sadly though, he can’t sing worth a pig’s fart. But here’s the good news: the remake’s music, reworked by original composer Elton John, is a by-and-large infectious romp, boasting a new song from Beyoncé, as well as an expanded sampling of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
And we can’t forget about those special effects. The Jungle Book was a grand introduction, but never before has motion capture CGI brought animals to life on a scale like this. Unfortunately, though, the technical wizardry comes at an undeniable cost, and that is the ability to imbue the creatures with human-like personality traits the way traditional animation can. Even so, the production values on display here are still a glorious and majestic spectacle. There isn’t much of anything new here, but fans of the original are sure to enjoy seeing the king back on his throne.
THE LION KING
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Fairview Entertainment.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Written by Jeff Nathanson, based on The Lion King by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.
Starring Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and James Earl Jones.
Released July 19, 2019.