Review: The Lion King (2019)
Disney will not stop making live-action (or in this case, photorealistic) versions of their animated classics. It’s too late now. So, for the purposes of this review, let’s move on.
In order to stop myself from comparing Disney’s latest “live-action” remake with its original, I took one precaution. I did not rewatch the animated original. I actually haven’t seen it in nearly a decade. But, that didn’t help. It did not stop me from analyzing almost every scene for memories of the original’s influence. Unfortunately, it’s more than just distracting, especially when you realize this film isn’t just influenced by its original story. It’s a carbon copy on a new medium. Which is weird...right? How can you review a film’s quality when it’s just the same thing as before?
Well. I’ll try.
Every reaction to this film will comment on how beautiful Disney’s photorealistic animals look. They’re right. Shit’s pretty. Every scene looks like an episode of Planet Earth, with long shots of animals scurrying around and beautiful environments full of life; but then their mouths start moving. At first, this didn’t feel as awkward as it sounds, or as awkward as it looked in films like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, thanks to some great performances by JD McCrary, as young Simba, and Shahadi Wright Joseph, as young Nala. However, when Donald Glover and Beyonce take over, you are instantly taken out of everything the first half made believable.
Grown-up Simba and Nala just don’t feel right, thanks to plain character designs and emotionless faces. Glover and Beyonce’s voice-over performances stick out like a sore thumb, which is unfortunate after a solid first act. Neither fit as the voice of their lion counterparts, and Beyonce’s performance in particular feels very rigid, specifically when she is trying to rally her fellow lions to fight back against Scar.
This could be due to Glover and Beyonce’s insanely recognizable voices, but Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, and John Oliver’s performances were also easily identifiable, yet it worked within the context of the film. They were all able to tweak the characters to their personalities, along with improvised lines, to make it feel like something new. Rogen’s Pumba, Eichner’s Timon, and Oliver’s Zazu have the best scenes in the film and provide effective comedic relief to a mostly serious movie, just like in the original. But, most of their jokes are new, especially Timon and Pumba’s more “meta” humor. They complain as Glover’s Simba continues to riff over their song, “Hakuna Matata”. They even reference another Disney classic. Their performances make this film worth seeing, but maybe later VOD.
Yes, the animals look like animals, but there is definitely something lost in this remake. The lack of excitement behind adult Simba’s eyes as he sings along to Hakuna Matata is the best example of why this medium doesn’t do the original justice. Many of the differences between these two movies are because they cannot pull off those animated scenes with their new medium. Realistically, Young Simba’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” couldn’t be the same colorful kaleidoscope number as before, and though that does make sense, any adaptation of this scene will just be not as exciting by default.
Another song that fell flat is Scar’s “Be Prepared”. This may be personal, because I consider it one of Disney’s best villain songs, but this film reduces Scar’s charisma so dramatically that I almost didn’t recognize the song from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance. And then there’s Beyonce’s new song for the film, “Spirit”, which plays loudly over Simba’s return to Pride Rock. It sounds out of place in a film that holds on so tightly to its original and successfully dragged out an already long scene.
The Lion King is well-made, but not with a new vision. A movie does not warrant a remake when it’s not making an attempt to retell that story. It’s hard to say if Disney will learn anything from these live-action remakes, seeing as they keep pushing them out, but I hope that their future slate will show more originality and courageous choices. So far, none of their remakes have really shown why these movies are creatively important - but the recent Mulan trailer does have some promise.