‘The Lion King’ (2019) review: Photorealistic Disney remake means no worries

Jon Favreau’s remake of ‘The Lion King’ does not liberate itself from the shackles of the Disney classic but the nostalgia it brings should be enough to make this an easy crowd-pleaser.

On a strict technical level, Disney’s 2019 version of The Lion King counts more as a retelling than a reimagination: the story and dialogues are roughly the same, the well-loved songs are all present, and the iconic scenes are masterfully replicated through cutting edge technology (making the 1994 classic look like a giant storyboard). James Earl Jones even reprises the role of Mufasa, “King of the Pride Rock” (pictured above). Had you seen the original film a day before the screening (yes, I have), the beat per beat similarities will be more evident and you’ll find yourself guessing the next lines.

This sounds good news for those who like to be comforted by the same blanket of emotions, all while revelling in the filmmakers’ technical prowess. Anyway, the classic has already a solid story to begin with, and this remake’s faithful adherence to it does not take away whatever entertainment value The Lion King brings. I can’t blame Disney for not fixing what’s not broken as multi-millions of dollars are at stake here. Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s first and foremost duty is to not mess it up… even if it’s at the cost of storytelling ambition.

Adventurous souls. Zazu (John Oliver) warns a young Simba (J.D. McCrary) and a young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) not to stray away from the Pride Lands.

That being said, those who couldn’t tolerate watching a practically the same film, will be greatly disappointed. The question of necessity immediately pops into one’s head and terms like “cash-grab” and “blatant rehash” will be thrown around by cynical viewers. Personally, I would rather reserve those terms for films which are lazily done and TLK 2.0 definitely doesn’t look like one. With its photorealistic and painstakingly rendered imagery, the film looks like a high-end feature of Disneynature. For someone who enjoys watching NatGeo documentaries, I am digging this. If anything, audiences will be baffled to know that none of it is actually real—everything is created in digital space. (The term “live action” seems to be a misnomer by now.) The main attraction here is to gawk at the visual wizardry and there’s no shame in that.

Wisdom and tribe loyalty. John Kani plays Rafiki, a wise mandrill who serves as the shaman of the Pride Lands and a close adviser of Mufasa.

Putting realism to the context of animation, however, creates dissonance at some parts and that’s where this remake fails to completely replicate the magic of the original. To be specific, Favreau & Co. sticks to realistic animal expressions: which means that a lion’s sad/angry/confused face won’t be as expressive as their animated counterparts. Hence, even if the vocal performances are all incredible, the emotional range and depth is not fully captured. In a way, 2.0 serves as a reminder why traditional animation is important. The exaggerated facial expressions and the surrealist sequences are used to convey larger than life emotions. The Lion King thrives more in that territory. It can never entirely sell the idea of realism in the first place, as there’s no way in the world that animals talk or sing like people.

But everything else is mostly forgiven when TLK 2.0 starts hitting the nostalgia button via its amusing, sing-along songs, and the sweeping musical score once again provided by the great Hans Zimmer. This remake retains most of the melodies but there are welcome additions too like Beyoncé’s original song “Spirit” which is played during Simba’s eventual return to the Pride Lands. Her character Nala is given more dimension this time and I wish we’re given more time for Donald Glover’s adult Simba to fully grow on us. Nevertheless, the coming-of-age push and pull themes of ‘putting your past behind’ vs. ‘remembering who you are’ are well emphasized in his character building moments. 

The heir of the Pride Lands, Simba (Donald Glover) and his childhood best friend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) reunites after several years of separation.

While the opening song “Circle of Life” is a frame by frame recreation of the original, Simba and Nala’s performance of Elton John’s rousing hit “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is wonderfully set in the warm glow of sunset this time. There’s also a fresh take in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance of “Be Prepared” which is delivered as a mix of spoken word/song. Combined with Scar’s scruffy features, the character looks more devious and menacing. 

Usurpers to the throne. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), along with his hyena henchmen Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key), and Azizi (Eric Andre), are onto something evil.

But TLK 2.0 starts to earn its big laughs upon the introduction of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumbaa. The duo steal the thunder with their nihilistic philosophy of living a worry-free lifestyle and the actors’ seemingly improvisational freedom. Their acapella performance of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” really lights up the mood of the film. Also bringing levity is John Oliver’s pompous and diplomatic bird Zazu.

Hakuna Matata. A young Simba (J.D. McCrary), meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa sing away their problems in ‘The Lion King.’

The Lion King (2019) does not reinvent nor reimagine the story and it does not have to. There’s a reason why the 1994 film is a timeless classic and it’s because of the relevant themes of responsibility, pride and courage. The main goal here is to reintroduce the story to a younger generation who don’t share the same level of enthusiasm towards the old-school Disney animation. In that note, this film succeeds.

The 2019 remake honors what came before. It may lack the surprise factor—the emotional punches and musical cues come as expected—but there’s great pleasure in seeing this classic brought into life. It won’t overthrow my love for the original anytime soon but think of this as a good old, hand-me-down present that’s beautifully wrapped for every generation to keep.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Jon Favreau, ‘The Lion King’ features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre and James Earl Jones. Based on the 1994 Disney classic by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. 118 minutes. Rated G.

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Review: Competent prequel, nothing more, nothing less

For an origin story, ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ doesn’t add much insight to its main character but this long-awaited, fun visualization should be enough to keep fans and casual moviegoers at bay.

It’s no secret that most of Solo’s weight hangs on Alden Ehrenreich’s performance. Unlike Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi) and Felicity Jones (Rogue One) who were given the opportunity to craft new characters for this generation, he is tasked to strike a balance in playing a younger version of the iconic Han Solo while honoring the inexorably linked Harrison Ford.

I’ll get the obvious one out of the way: Alden bears no physical resemblance with a young Ford. Hence, as the film kicks in, it takes a while before we latch on to him.  It would be a lie not to say that I spent most of the first few minutes scrutinizing his smirks, his stance, his speech patterns, his constantly squinted eyes, etc. – this actor does not exactly act like a young Ford either.

But here’s the thing, he does not need to be a duplicate of Ford. Disney would make a big mistake casting an impersonator in place of an actor. Once you accepted that this version is something new, watching Han unfold isn’t bad as it seems. Alden’s performance does not scream of “I’m the only one who can play this role” and his character sometimes blends in the background (which should not happen). Nonetheless, he embodies the Han in A New Hope – his egotism, his tenacity and his arrogance (albeit less charming than Ford). And that’s the goal to begin with, right? For that alone, I am satisfied.

Hans Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewbacca a.k.a. Chewie (Joonas Suotamo)

The reason why he does not get close to Ford’s work will have to do more with the competent but somehow unremarkable script. For an origin story, Solo doesn’t add much insight to its main character. What the film does is present a backstory of everything we have heard from him in the past: how he met Chewbacca, how he won the Millenium Falcon, how he became “the best pilot” in the universe, and so on. Sure, there are plenty of new characters to further explore his lore. We learn that Han is a scoundrel wanting to leave the enslaving planet Corellia, along with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). He affiliates with a team of rogue criminals: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his partner Val (Thandie Newton), and a four-armed alien Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) – a character who I think is supposed to be a comic-relief but did not elicit any single laugh from the audience.

Han resorts to his thieving ways in a galaxy where everyone is capable of scheming and double-crossing. Beckett says to him several times, “Do not trust anybody” and we knew from there what makes Han tick. He embarks on this hero/anti-hero journey, constantly throwing himself into danger in search of freedom and wealth. Still, there’s no groundbreaking information here to give us a whole new perspective for Han. My biggest takeaway in this prequel is where he got his odd surname from.

That is not to say that Solo is a disappointing film. It is actually enjoyable to watch. This is a heist film after all featuring thrilling Western-inspired chases, hijacks and space jams. Remarkably, this is the first Star Wars film that does not feature “The Force” or the lightsaber. To compensate with this, we are served with grittier set pieces that we haven’t seen in the universe before. This should be enough to reel in a casual movie-goer.

Inside the Millenium Falcon (L-R): Chewie, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke) and Han Solo.

What the film does excellently is to capture the relationship of Han and Chewie, an unlikely alliance turned into a lifelong bond. At one point Han says to Chewie, “Chewbacca? That is a long name. Don’t expect me to call you that every time.” That’s the beauty of this film, every time we are presented with a catch phrase, an iconic piece of item, or an initial meeting of the characters, it brings smile to our faces because we all know how it’s going to play out.

The same is true with the stylish Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) who steals the spotlight from the moment he enters the picture. If there are any doubts to Alden’s casting, I can say for sure that Glover is perfect for this role. Every angle and nuance of him embodies the character without making it a mere Billy Dee Williams impression. Paired with a sassy woke droid L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) we finally get the much needed humor.

Lando Calrissian: “Can I get you anything?”   L3-37: “Equal rights?”

Without a doubt, Solo is the lightest film in the franchise and not because of the sporadic humor, but because it lacks a formidable villain to add gravitas to its arc (see: Darth Sidious, Darth Vader, Kylo Ren or Orson Krennic). Paul Bettany does his best as Dryden Vos but with not much characterization to work around apart from having a bunch of unexplained scars, he ends up as an equivalent to General Hux or Captain Phasma. There’s a rousing revelation in the end that sets up a sequel to another Solo film and hopefully this will flesh out a more compelling story in the future.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, occasionally feels like a generic sci-fi film with the ‘Star Wars’ label stamped into it. In a way, it is still a competent prequel that works as palette cleanser from the franchise’s known heavy themes. It flows like a checklist mythology, with certain marks to hit and the film let you knows that it’s hitting them (like how Solo’s golden dice given by Luke to Leia in The Last Jedi gets a good amount of screentime.) Former directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were reportedly fired by Disney due to creative differences and since the film went into massive re-shoots, we can only imagine if their version could have been better than Ron Howard’s.

Still, aficionados will flock onto this film whether to enjoy it or to criticize it. This is a long-awaited visualization of Han Solo’s early years. It’s certainly fun to watch, though sometimes even super fans have better ideas than the filmmakers themselves. 

3.5 out of 5 stars

About Solo: A Star Wars Story

Board the Millennium Falcon and journey to a galaxy far, far away in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story,’ an adventure with the most beloved scoundrel in the galaxy. Through a series of daring escapades deep within a dark and dangerous criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his mighty future copilot Chewbacca and encounters the notorious gambler Lando Calrissian, in a journey that will set the course of one of the Star Wars saga’s most unlikely heroes.

Distributed by Walt Disney Studios starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau.

Directed by Ron Howard from a screenplay by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan. Based on the characters of George Lucas. Runtime: 135 minutes.