The Lion King (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
As with many Disney live-action remakes, families can experience beloved movies all over again, this time with their children. And for many, The Lion King is one of the greatest animated films ever made.
The visual effects alone make this one of the most impressive looking films I have ever seen.
Though the photorealistic animals make danger look and feel more real and intense than their animated predecessors, there is still a whole lot here for kids and younger viewers to be mesmerized and amazed by. Timon and Pumbaa steal the show and I could easily see this becoming a new favorite movie for a whole lot of kids.
20+ minutes longer than the 1994 original, The Lion King still manages to replicate the original movie beat-for-beat and mostly note-for-note. Everything is a step below the original, making purists feel ample reason to bristle at the film’s mere existence.
Oddly underwhelming in key emotional moments the longer the film goes on.
Photorealism does make the film potentially more intense and frightening for young viewers. Some of the imagery and encounters, even with “talking animals,” could prove a bit harrowing if kids are not prepared ahead of time.
Leave it to Disney to stumble into controversy borne out of only the best of intentions. As Disney grows more immense and powerful with their media acquisitions and ownership of seemingly everything you like nowadays, they are everywhere.
The four biggest grossing movies of 2019, as of this writing, are all Disney properties (Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin), generating $1.8 billion in domestic box office revenue already this year. And even though Spider-Man is a Sony Pictures property, he is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (owned by Disney), and leads the fifth biggest grossing film of 2019 so far. Yeah, Disney can take some credit for that as well, as their inclusion of him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has no doubt built that brand into something huge all over again.
So imagine the naysayers who see The Lion King, circa 2019, come along. For many, the 1994 animated classic is one of the greatest and most meaningful movies of all time - animated or otherwise. In recent years, Disney’s hold on the entertainment industry has grown increasingly troubling, not necessarily because of money, but what they choose to do with it.
Reports have surfaced of Disney strong-arming theater chains and owners, limiting screens available to smaller films hoping to find some space at the multiplex. They recently acquired majority interest in streaming service Hulu, in advance of their own Disney+ streaming service, giving them essentially editorial control over all the partners who upload content to Hulu. When someone seemingly holds all the chips at the poker table, eventually there are no more chips to acquire.
And The Lion King is going to make (I’ll hazard a guess…) a couple billion at the global box office. And it is easy to understand why. Disney’s prowess and innovative spirit, as filmmakers, allows them to consistently try and often succeed in breaking new ground.
With this 2019 version of The Lion King, the visual presentation is unmatched. The photorealism on not just the animal characters, but also the sets, backdrops, and locations, a joint collaboration between Disney animators and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, are astonishing. I have never seen anything like this before - part nature documentary, part animated film - The Lion King looks flawlessly rendered on screen.
The Visual Effects Oscar race should be over for 2019.
It is what lies behind those effects that makes this iteration of The Lion King a little tougher to swallow. Recreated mostly scene-for-scene by director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book - 2016), the familiar story opens with a stunning “Circle of Life” opening sequence that promises something absolutely incredible. Once we move into the story and see familiar moments recreated on screen, we are amused, touched by nostalgia perhaps, but something feels increasingly lacking.
The voiceover performances are quite solid. 11-year-old JD McCrary is a wonderful young Simba and the warmth in hearing James Earl Jones reprise his role as Mufasa is wonderful in every conceivable way. Later, when Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter step into the more mature versions of Simba and his best friend Nala, we hear a rich, emotive delivery of dialogue that feels more appropriate to the coming-of-age nature of Simba’s journey from cub to potential king.
But something’s off. The film has energy, but the musical numbers seem less impactful than before. A new song from Beyoncé (“Spirit”) sounds great on Apple Music or Spotify, but feels lost in the context of the movie. As things glide along, The Lion King becomes that rare movie that retains a stunning look, engages with many great performances, but sheds its magic the longer and longer it goes.
Chiwetel Ejiofor replaces Jeremy Irons as Scar, and plays him beleaguered and tired. While perhaps true to the nature of the character, Ejiofor seems to underplay the role. When the villainous elements of the story enter into the fray, we just are not there with the emotions depicted before us.
And while Seth Rogen may not be able to carry a tune as Timon, alongside the hilarious Billy Eichner as Pumbaa, the warthog and meerkat tandem so memorable in the animated tale (voiced previously by Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane, respectively), find tremendous chemistry together here. Eichner especially steals the show, but they almost feel like their scenes exist in a different movie from everyone else.
It is a dash pessimistic, but perhaps realistic, to mention that The Lion King exists strictly for financial reasons. One wants to believe that we can have both a groundbreaking artistic film that resonates with audiences and also breaks the bank wide open. And elements of this do work really, really well.
Yet this is, for all intents and purposes, kind of an expensive “Xerox” of The Lion King, just on a brand new Ultra HD color copier your office installed that makes the most vivid and stunning copies you have ever seen. You may walk away raving about how amazing the new copier makes things look, but at the end of the day, it is still a copy of something else which came before it. And that initial excitement of seeing something brand new for the first time can never be repeated.
Adults should be warned that the film’s key scene in the middle of the film, along with a menacing clan of snarling hyenas, proves far more intense here than in the animated version. And while kids and first-time viewers will likely swoon over this, and parents will appreciate the nostalgia Favreau and his team have generated, the fact remains that this version of The Lion King is an audience-friendly, perplexing conundrum of a film.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, Chance Bennett.
Director: Jon Favreau
Written by: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay); Brenda Chapman (story).
Based on characters created for the 1994 film “The Lion King” by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton.
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Walt Disney Pictures