Before you read further, it’s important to note that I'm a ’90s kid.
I was 4 years old when the original animated Lion King released in theaters, and I have fond memories of watching it countless times with my family on VHS. It’s one of the first movies I can remember that taught me about the reality of death, how valuable responsibility is, and never losing your sense of home.
So, like many others who have a reserved space in their hearts for the 1994 classic, I didn't take the news of the live-action (or photorealistic CGI — whatever you want to call it) remake well. I think these Disney retellings are divisive. Like any remake, it ticks off those who grew up watching the originals, and it excites others who want to share the experience with a new generation.
The problem is not many kids today have the patience to watch hand-drawn animation as much anymore. Many studies have shown that children today prefer to view the animation on display in titles like Moana and Frozen as opposed to Bambi or The Aristocats. That could also be because the tone of older animated films isn’t as spirited, or because there are elements in those features that haven’t exactly aged well. So, contrarily, it’s understandable why we got a new Dumbo and Aladdin. But I would show my child the original films instead so we can have a more meaningful discussion about what’s right and wrong.
Back to what you’re here for: Director Jon Favreau, who put flesh (and as close as computers can get to flesh) on characters in 2015’s The Jungle Book, took another fat check from Disney to do the same with The Lion King. I admit it — I was ready with knives in hand before watching this new version. But I took a step back to be more optimistic about its possibilities: It’s about 30 minutes longer than the original film, which means they can run with the story and take it to new places. And the voice cast — including Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Keegan-Michael Key and the return of James Earl Jones — I mean, good lord, how can you not get pumped about that?
As much as it seems as though the stars (or the kings of the past) should align here, they don’t. My feelings leaving the theater were complicated. On the one hand, I was blown away by the visuals, all the quiet moments that felt more like a Disneynature documentary, and a few new character spices. But on the other, not enough felt fresh, and the lack of exaggerated emotions hindered the experience.
The Lion King story is larger than life. You have talking animals, the chief one being the lion, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub and Glover as an adult). As a young prince, Simba is shown the ropes by his dad, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and all the joy that comes from keeping the circle of life intact. Meanwhile, Simba’s grumpy Uncle Scar (Ejiofor) introduces him to the temptations that lurk in the shadows. Soon enough, tragedy occurs, and it sends our hero away from his home on the Pride Lands to find himself again.
It’s a classic story of self-discovery. There’s so much you can do with it, like smooth out tonal transitions and explore characters more deeply. I have to give Favreau props for extending a few recognizable moments with Scar, Sarabi (Simba’s mom, voiced by Woodard), and Timon and Pumbaa (Simba’s pals in the second half, voiced by scene-stealers Eichner and Rogen). We get a better understanding of Scar’s plan to dethrone Mufasa and give control to the starving hyenas. We also get some intense scenes with Sarabi, where she refuses to bend to Scar’s will. And, lastly (and more entertainingly), Timon and Pumbaa have moments where it just feels like Eichner and Rogen are just riffing and having a good time. They also do smooth out one transition when the outcast duo sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The Lion King isn’t complete doom. The opening sequence pulls you in right away and sends your nostalgic heart racing. It’s almost shot-for-shot from the original film, but in higher definition, so to speak. You can see all the little hairs on the animals sway in the breeze and the camera play with its focus to give the sequence more depth. There’s no talking because returning composer Hans Zimmer’s score crackles with an electric fever. All the quiet moments — where we observe the true animalistic behaviors of the characters — are remarkable. For example, we see Mufasa panting nervously while Rafiki (an old mandrill, voiced by John Kani) carries Simba to the edge of Pride Rock to show him to the animal kingdom below.
After the title of the film slams on the screen (just as it does in the animated film), there’s an extended sequence of the little mouse that Scar catches. If you recall from the animated movie, Scar speaks to the audience about his Loki-like hate for being a mere creature in the shadows. That moment initially had me fired up because it was showing us just how creative the film could be with delivering new material. Unfortunately, this Lion King nearly feels the exact same, only duller.
It seems Favreau wanted the characters to act like real animals. So when a lion is upset, happy or sad, its face looks the same. The 2-D cartoon bends those rules to illustrate character emotions further. Perhaps Favreau directed his cast to dial it back so their delivery matched the animals’ natural behavior. Unfortunately, you can't escape the feeling that the talents got paid a handsome amount to phone it in.
When a studio releases a remake and makes changes, it needs to balance the differences. Whatever you take away, you need to put something else in its place that can enhance the story. Sadly, The Lion King takes more away than it gives back. And most of what is left there is hollow.
The Lion King remake isn’t necessary. I still plan to take my son to see it, though, whether I like the movie or not. If watching this one causes you and your family to revisit or view the original film for the first time, then that’s cool. Other than to feed my son’s happiness, I don’t plan to watch this new Lion King again on my own time.