The Lion King (2019)
Release Date: July 19, 2019 (Wide)
When childhood nostalgia is involved and a beloved animated feature already exists, it’s easy to be cynical and instantly write off another “live-action” Disney remake. While there’s no getting around that all movie studios are motivated by making money, any great story deserves to be told in a different form on the big screen and for a different generation when there’s cutting-edge technology to showcase. With that said, in this unnecessary trend, 2019’s “The Lion King” is just the exact same Shakespearean story from the 1994 hand-drawn animated film, only with a pretty, polished coat of CG paint and a more padded running time. After bringing something special to 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau’s latest photorealistic recreation is more of a slavishly faithful, scene-for-scene facsimile this time. Vastly impressive from a technical standpoint, but save for a few exceptions, this remake is inferior to its 25-year-old predecessor and only works sporadically on an emotional level.
The story of 2019’s “The Lion King” is the same as it was in, you guessed it, 1994’s “The Lion King.” Born to be the heir to the African animal kingdom, young cub Simba (voice of JD McCrary) learns about his place in the circle of life from father and current king Mufasa (the magisterial James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original), while making friends with Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and being watched by majordomo Zazu (John Oliver). Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soon plots against his brother to overturn the throne with the help from some hyenas by killing Mufasa and blaming Simba for his father’s death. Filled with guilt, Simba runs away and meets a carefree duo in the form of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who show him the ropes in how to eat grubs. All grown up, Simba (Donald Glover) reunites with his dear friend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), remembering who he is, and stands up to his uncle to take back what is rightfully his.
Playing out as a Disneynature documentary with lifelike animals who also happen to be anthropomorphic characters in a version of “Hamlet,” “The Lion King” starts off on a high note before going a bit slack and lifeless in the proceedings when Timon and Pumbaa aren't around. The opening scene with “The Circle of Life” is majestic and generates the kind of goosebumps it aims for, as the entire animal kingdom gathers below Pride Rock to witness the unveiling of future leader Simba as an adorable cub with tactile fur. The wildebeest stampede that imperils Simba while practicing his roar in a gorge is intensely staged, the tragic fall of Mufasa is affecting, and there is also a beautifully conceived new sequence that tracks a tuft of Simba’s fur through its own circle of life until it makes its way to baboon Rafiki (John Kani). After that, the script by screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (2017’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) doesn’t make many alterations to the story, not that there needed to be, besides giving Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) more of a voice and more agency to adult Nala who defies Scar.
All of the vocal talent from the all-star cast is fine—and appreciably, the majority of them are performers of color, considering the story is set in Africa—although the casting of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as wisecracking meerkat Timon and flatulent warthog Pumbaa, ends up being the most inspired. It helps that Timon and Pumbaa are the most welcome source of energy and comic relief, but Eichner and Rogen steal the show anyway as the most vocally expressive, making their banter feel fresh and funny every time (including a clever “Beauty and the Beast” gag worked in). Also, it’s a tall order to drip with menacing villainy like Jeremy Irons, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is effective as Scar.
As spectacular as the animation looks, though, the hyperrealism of the talking-and-singing animals doesn’t always positively serve the story or engender the feeling that it probably should have. Hans Zimmer’s score is still intact, as are Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs (with the addition of a new song, “Spirit,” by Beyoncé), but seeing as how the hyperrealistic animal characters are not animated and can’t really do much besides scamper forward while singing, the musical numbers are not as show-stopping as they were the first time around. That goes for Timon and Pumbaa’s anthem “Hakuna Matata”—it means “no worries”—and even the bouncy “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” with young Simba, Nala, and Zazu. Even if the technical wizardry bringing the animals to life is nothing to scoff at, “The Lion King” isn’t much more than a spectacle achievement when there isn't as much of the joy or heart to match.
Grade: C +