Review – The Lion King (2019)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Donald Glover, JD McCrary, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Beyonce, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, John Kani, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, Florence Kasumba

Lion King

How iconic does a film need to be before it becomes untouchable? Evidently, the answer is ‘even more iconic than The Lion King.’ The 1994 classic which is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the early 1990s golden era of Disney animated musicals, which was up until Frozen the highest grossing movie musical of all time, and which spawned a Tony Award winning Broadway hit, is the latest of the Mouse House’s back catalogue to get a do-over.

Let us start by doing away with this oft-repeated nonsense that Jon Favreau and his team have made a ‘live-action’ remake of The Lion King. The latest in a recent line of remakes of classic Disney animations involving various combinations of live action and animation, this particular film is no more live action than the one on which it is based. There are not real lions. There are not even real landscapes. While incredibly, at times breathtakingly, naturalistic, everything we see in The Lion King is computer generated using VR and gaming engines to create environments in which to place the digitally rendered characters. This is an incredibly sophisticated and lifelike style of animation, but animation none the less.

Favreau’s The Lion King sticks closely to the familiar narrative of the original. A classical tale, indebted as it is to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it tells the story of a young prince, Simba (JD McCrary), who is convinced by his wicked uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that he is responsible for the death of his father, the king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and that he must flee the Pridelands. Having grown into adulthood unaware of the way his home has been ravaged under Scar’s rule, Simba (Donald Glover) is urged by his childhood friend Nala (Beyonce) to return home and reclaim his throne.

While they have largely been underwhelming, those few examples of these Disney remakes which have been good – and Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of them – are those which had been willing take some liberties. This Lion King, though, adheres rather rigidly to the template of the 1994 film. It is respectful to to the point of seeming intimidated by its source material. Moments and scenes are carefully meticulously recreated, almost shot for shot, resulting in a film that doesn’t surprise in any way. By not endeavouring to offer any new understanding or insight, or bring a new perspective to this beloved story, this remake comes across as a purely technical exercise. The filmmakers were seemingly motivated by the challenge of creating naturalistic animation, with the story of The Lion King simply being the vehicle around which to build this experiment.

Lion King 2

The lifelike quality of MPC Film’s animation is unlike anything we’ve seen before

And it must be acknowledged that this is very impressive animation. On a purely visual level, it is stunning what the team at animation company MPC Film has managed to do. The life-like quality is unlike anything we have seen before. In the incidental, in-between moments in which we are just watching these animals behave, the film is quite breathtaking. They could legitimately be mistaken for scenes from a David Attenborough documentary. However, as soon as the characters are called upon to perform, the lifelikeness of the animation has an uncanny, distancing effect. 

Seemingly implicit in this project of remaking this Disney animated classic beat for beat is the suggestion that the 2D, hand-drawn animation of the time somehow represented a limitation which we are now capable of overcoming. But what becomes apparent is just how important that animation was to the telling of this story. The naturalistic quality of this animation may make them look more like real lions, but they don’t feel more like real characters. The ability of hand-drawn animation to give these animals expressive faces made them relatable and connectable. A real lion’s face, however, does not project emotion the same way a human’s face does and that results in less engaging characters. You see the beats of the plot playing out but don’t feel them in the same way. So while in one sense this is a groundbreaking achievement of animation, it is not in service of the storytelling.

Thankfully, the arrival of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen) brings a desperately needed breath of fresh air to the film. Their’s is the first passage of the film that actually feels different. Understanding that comedy styles change over time, Favreau gave Eichner and Rogen some room to improvise around their scenes and this fluidity gives their scenes a sense of life and energy lacking from the rest of the film. They playfully subvert some of the jokes you remember from the original. Rogen might also be the worst singer to ever star in a musical, but it works for Pumba and ‘Hakuna Matata’ remains a highlight of the film.

Hans Zimmer’s score is still glorious, and the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice hold up, though they are imbued with more of a pop rather than a musical theatre flavour with the casting of Donald Glover and Beyonce. The dedication to more naturalistic appearance and movement has also toned down the choreography of these numbers. Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, still does some good old-fashioned, Rex Harrison-style talk-singing as Scar.

So what then can we ultimately say about this remake of The Lion King? It is a highly successful technical exercise, photorealistic to a degree we’ve never seen before. But the tradeoff is that some of the soul of the story is lost, making it the successful execution of a fundamentally flawed plan. However, the sense of spectacle and interest coming from this nonsense about it being a ‘live-action remake’ will be sufficient to ensure that it makes bucketloads of money at the box office.

Rating: ★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen The Lion King? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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