I would tell you to “be prepared,” but you already are!
The Lion King needs almost no introduction, since it is one of the most highly acclaimed and highest grossing animated films of all time. It is a story we all know by now, especially since it is based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but here is the scoop. In the great Pride Lands of Africa, the lion king Mufasa reigns, and plans to pass on his title to his young lion cub, Simba. Unbeknownst to Mufasa, his treacherous brother Scar plans to kill him and take the throne for himself. When Scar succeeds, he tricks Simba into thinking he caused his own father’s death, forcing him to run away and leave the Pride Land in Scar’s hands. Out in exile, Simba has to learn to confront his past and accept his responsibilities.
The Walt Disney Company has decided, in recent years, to produce live-action remakes of their various animated classics. The Lion King will be the third remake this year, following Dumbo in March and Aladdin in May. The latter two’s reviews were, at best, mixed, claiming that they were bland and unnecessary. Arguably, the most successful of all of the remakes was 2016’s The Jungle Book, which won the hearts of critics and grossed almost 1 billion at the global box office. Having seen that film, I give credit to director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson for remaining faithful to the original while adding some creative choices to flesh out the material and make it distinguishable. Since Favreau and Nathanson teamed up again for The Lion King, you would think that this live-action remake would also be good. Well, here’s my little secret…it’s not.
I use the term “live-action remake” very loosely, because this film acts more as a carbon copy, and we are talking word for word and shot for shot. I had never felt so bored watching a film in a long time, because the film did nothing to differentiate itself from the original, and therefore, I knew everything that was coming next. If I were to paraphrase Roger Ebert’s review of 1992’s The Mighty Ducks, if someone sitting next to me had to use the bathroom and asked me to tell him what he missed when he came back, I would say “I can tell you right now EXACTLY what you’re going to miss!” It was THAT predictable.
The excessive copycatting wouldn’t bother me so much if the film was equally engaging, but it is surprisingly not, and because of this, it feels soulless. My favorite scene is the first shot, where the African sun rises to the opening bars of “Circle of Life.” Instead of opening the film with a wide shot of the African sunrise, as the animated film did, this version instead shows the top of trees for about two seconds before sun rises in the background, starting the sequence. It’s not remarkable by any means, and I prefer the original execution, but I appreciate the film at least trying something a little different. Sadly, as the film continued, I started noticing too many scenes that are identical to the original, including a shot of ants carrying leaves along a branch while zebras stampede in the background. It is one of the most iconic shots from the “Circle of Life” sequence, and it feels almost manipulative that they felt the need to recreate this shot.
There are only a few new scenes in this film, but they add nothing to the story. One example involves Nala escaping the desolate Pride Lands in order to look for food, eventually running into Simba and his friends. The original did not show this, and so, it was all the more surprising when Nala and Simba reunite. Other than that, the only notable additions are a few ad-libbed lines that do not add anything substantial, opting instead to poke fun at the original’s content, which sort of defeats the purpose of copying it, when you really think about it. There is also a reference to another Disney classic, and if you were able to get through this scene without cringing, you deserve a medal.
If we were to discuss the visual effects, there is not that much to say. The look of the film itself is muted, dreary, and unpleasant, far from the colorful and vibrant look of the animated film, and the shot composition feels less than epic. The CGI animals look nice, and clearly a lot of work has been done on them, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in The Jungle Book. The fact that the characters are photorealistic CGI also creates a problem that deflates the experience. The animals’ faces are rarely expressive; thus, it makes it hard for the audience to connect with their emotions. They look more disinterested than engaged, and, unfortunately, the voice acting does not help the story in the slightest.
This film has an incredible cast, but all of them feel wasted here. One performance I was looking forward to was James Earl Jones returning as the voice of Mufasa, because let’s face it, there is no one else who can do the role like he does. However, his lines are almost word for word from the original film, and not delivered with the same booming voice that made his original performance so memorable. They might as well have just taken his audio from the original and place it here instead.
Aside from Jones, the other voice actors are competent, but fail to generate any heart of interest for their characters. I was also looking forward to Donald Glover as grown-up Simba, but his performance, for some reason, feels weak and disnegaged. Even more surprising, I don’t know whether or not he is better or worse than Matthew Broderick’s. That should be enough of a sign that something is wrong!
What about the songs? Surely they have to be fine. Nope. They are the exact same songs from the original, only sung by actors who can’t sing. The unfortunate standout here is Seth Rogan as Pumba, who doesn’t seem to possess the same vocal range that Ernie Sabella had when singing “Hakuna Matata.” The scenes that accompany these songs feel slow and lifeless, and yet, they also feel rushed and lacking any emotion, a feature that also plagues the majority of these live-action remakes. The worst offender in this soundtrack is “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which has a shockingly bad instrumental that is far from the earworm the animated film gave us.
I almost feel guilty for comparing this remake to the original, because every film should be judged on its own terms. The problem, though, is that this film is completely dependent on our nostalgia for the The Lion King. Since everything is almost exactly the same, except the style of filmmaking, it is inevitable to compare the two. Some people blindly defend the live-action Disney remakes just because they mimic scenes remembered from the original film. However, these remakes are missing the heart and energy that made the originals classic. All it does is make you wonder why you are paying almost $20 for something you could watching, and actually enjoying, for free in the comfort of your own home.
The Lion King is yet another shallow remake of an original Disney animated classic, and is possibly the most shameless one since the remake of Beauty and the Beast. The filmmakers did almost nothing to distinguish this movie from the original, and anything that is new does nothing to properly justify the remake’s existence. Whether this can be considered live-action or not (this was heavily debated online) doesn’t matter. What matters for me, personally, is that an animated cartoon from 25 years ago was able to get more emotion out of me than a modern-day $250 million repeat.