Review: The Lion King (2019)

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Nothing to see here, just a bird and a lion being a bird and a lion: Disney

I watched the original LION KING the night before I saw this new version to have a point of comparison. I now realise that was a mistake. The 1994 film is so efficient in its storytelling, so full of animation subtleties and beautiful characterisation in aid of emotional connection. The new CGI version re-tells the same story with characters who can’t emote at all, never mind provide nuanced performances or make you care. At least the music is mostly unspoiled. Mostly.

Simba (JD McCrary) is ready to one day take over his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) kingdom and take his place in the great circle of life, until his jealous uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) instigates a coup and banishes the young lion.

I’m so glad people are realising how ridiculous it is to call this a live-action remake. There isn’t a frame of the real here, just a good-looking and stunningly detailed reality simulation. It’s an impressive technical exercise but should have probably stayed at the proof-of-concept stage, which is what the opening shot-for-shot recreation of “Circle of Life” feels like.

This first scene made it very clear very fast that this wasn’t going to work as an enterprise. The shots might match but there’s a key element missing. In Lion King ’94, Zazu flies ahead of the procession of pride land citizens coming to pay tribute to the new prince, he lands and bows before a regal and stoic lion surveying his kingdom, before Mufasa’s face breaks into a warm beam of recognition at his old friend. In the remake a bird flies above a load of other animals, lands in front of a lion, the lion looks at the bird and the bird looks back.

As the film went on it started to annoy me how little they were prepared to deviate from the original story. Almost beat-for-beat, it’s the same. Even when they do do something new it’s to make what came before less interesting. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is the only musical number with any choreography, or any real movement, to be honest. They turn “Be Prepared” into a badly written politician’s speech with a strange cadence. Gone too is the exaggerated scenery and the moody lighting all in the name of realism. The stampede is a boring scene now. How is that possible?

In terms of voice talent, it’s a mixed bag. The highlight is probably John Oliver as a prim and particular Zazu prone to telling comic anecdotes that nobody listens to. Billy Eichner brings nervous energy and decent pipes to Timon, Seth Rogan is funny as always as Pumbaa but should never have a go at singing again. Ejiofor has an interesting new take on Scar but his delivery is too subtle for the medium. James Earl Jones provides the continuity but sounds on autopilot, the lower vocal register he’s reached with age resulting in the odd veer into Vader.

Going for a tone as grandiose and serious as the stoney-faced lions we’re being asked to empathise with might have elicited some kind of response if it was consistent, but then Jon Favreau and co decided to wink at their completely captive audience. The fact that the adult Simba (Donald Glover) has an unexpectedly good singing voice and Rogan aa Pumbaa most definitely does not gets an acknowledgement, and there’s even a spoof of another Disney movie (one to also receive the remake treatment, no less) used as a plot point later on. It all just comes across as a bit try-hard.

While most of the songs you know and love survive intact, you might want to either close your eyes or cover your ears to get any real enjoyment of the new Lion King. The audio-visual dissidence of photo-real animals belting out Broadway musical numbers without Broadway-style expressive performances completely takes you out of the story. Photo-real lions can’t smile or cry. If there’s one thing Disney don’t want their remakes to leave their audience feeling, it’s cold. If there’s one thing they don’t want to leave their audience thinking, it’s “I wish I was watching the original”. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Bong Joon-ho, Danny Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Taika Waititi and Edgar Wright. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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