The Lion King (2019) Review
After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.
Cast: Donald Glover, Beyonce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner
Directors: Jon Favreau
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay by), Brenda Chapman (story by), Irene Mecchi (characters), Jonathan Roberts (characters), Linda Woolverton (characters)
I haven’t seen all of the Disney ‘live-action’ remakes, but Jon Favreau’s The Lion King — which isn’t live-action, but is still being put in the same category — is the most boring, unnecessary snooze-fest I’ve seen of them so far. That might be a tad aggressive, but this film reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, which is the first example of utterly pointless cinema making I ever witnessed. I’m not in the camp that thinks live-action versions of animated films are completely unnecessary, I liked Aladdin a lot, and I loved Favreau’s The Jungle Book, but when you’re going to bring near-nothing new to a film it’s going to have me leaving the cinema wondering why you even bothered.
The story remains the same as the 1994 original animated feature. There are a couple of small changes in scenes and dialogue at places, most notably is giving Nala a bit of a bigger role in this film, but otherwise, it’s primarily shot-for-shot. Simba is tricked by his Uncle Scar into thinking the death of his father was his fault and forced into abandoning his home and kingdom as it falls under the ruthless rule of Scar. When Simba grows into a lion, full, his destiny comes calling. It’s Hamlet, but with animals.
This film seems to rely heavily on nostalgia for its emotional impact, and I find it hard to believe any child would prefer this to the animated original. Especially because this film is significantly longer, and much slower paced. It’s not thanks to an abundance of new scenes either. An extended musical number or two, yes, but also an ego-stroking amount of time spent on slowing down scenes to show-off the, admittedly, rather good looking CGI.
A fine line between National Geographic and The Polar Express is to be found within the CGI being used here and I feel like it found its mark. The animals look real but also seeing them talking never looked ridiculous. That said, the balance to find the realistic look, leaves the characters with a much less emotive animation compared to the animated original. A more realistic approach was taken and met, but this leads to the delivery of lines at times feeling like weird voice-over from one of those low-budget talking puppy films.
James Earl Jones returns to voice Mufasa as he did in the original feature, and he stands levels above the rest of the cast. Given he’s done this before, but the amount of pure charisma and heart he breathes into Mufasa is undeniably at the heart of the film even after he leaves it.
While the rest of the cast is talented, undeniably, and the choice to cast a nearly entirely black cast this time is great, they’re mostly wasted, or unable to bring anything noteworthy to their CGI creations on-screen. Donald Glover's performance as adult Simba sounds good but paired with the CGI lion it just comes across as dull. Beyonce too, as adult Nala sounds good, but something is constantly off with the delivery on-screen. Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre as Azizi and Kamari, two of the hyenas, should have made for a great duo and comedic act, but again, it’s utterly dull. Even Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar, which is notably more sinister and less Shakespearean than the original film isn’t anywhere near as charismatic as the original. The performance is there from the actors, but what’s being created on-screen just isn’t melding to do it justice.
There are a couple of exceptions to this. John Oliver as the royal bird Zazu is quite quirky and has a few new jokes. And then Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are fantastic as the best friends and dynamic duo that is Timon and Pumbaa. They manage to hit all the notes that fans will remember from the original while at times adding dialogue and jokes that feel like the two of them simply ad-libbing.
A big part of The Lion King is, of course, the music and I’ll say the one moment I felt any nostalgic emotion well up was when that opening African chant kicked in as the film started. On top of that, all the classics are here, as well as a couple songs carried over from the stage-play, and a singular new song by Beyonce, cause how could you have her not? They’re all fantastic, although I felt was either mixed weirdly, or my cinema was having audio issues on the day I watched the film. For example, that opening chant and song, I straight away took note of how quiet it seemed. Every other song in the movie as well lacked proper audacity and ooft to it that they deserve. The soundtrack in full I appreciated much better after the film when I could listen at home, but the original made you want to get up and dance, but not this one.
While Donald Glover and Beyonce fail to bring anything special to their performances as Simba and Nala, they nail the music aspect of The Lion King. I’ll probably never watch the film again, but I’m happy to listen to the soundtrack.
The Lion King never came close to the magic I felt watching the original film and it doesn’t do enough to stand on its own legs. The first half of the film, especially, is a drag through paint-by-numbers with James Earl Jones as the standout. The second half at least has Glover + Bee on duet duty and Timon and Pumbaa as the only outlier of fun in the entire two-hour experience, or should I say experiment? Well, results are in and it’s a catastrophic bore.