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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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