Review: The Lion King (2019)

As the third Disney remake to hit the silver screen this year after the critical failings of Dumbo and Aladdin, all eyes are on the classic “re-imagining” of the classic 1994 animated feature The Lion King

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As the third Disney remake to hit the silver screen this year after the critical failings of Dumbo and Aladdin, all eyes are on the classic “re-imagining” of the classic 1994 animated feature The Lion King. Already made into the Elton John and Tim Rice musical that has graced Broadway and the West End and beloved by fans around the world, The Lion King is renowned for its impressive storytelling – it’s loose adaptation of Hamlet – as well as its emotional moments and soaring songs. It’s safe to say it’s a staple in the Disney universe, and many would argue should not have been recreated.

For those who have somehow avoided The Lion King’s entrapment over the years, or said they had seen it when they really hadn’t, would find the story of a young lion cub Simba (Donald Glover) who runs away from his homeland after his power-hungry uncle Scar (Chitetel Ejiofor) involves him in the accidental death of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, returning to his role from the original). Meeting the loveable duo Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Simba leaves his old life behind, until his childhood friend Nata (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) sees him and tries to convince him to become the lion king he was always meant to be.

When the film was optioned for a remake a few years back, in the wake of the carousel of other Disney stories to be brought into the live-action world, director Jon Favreau was tasked with the job, no doubt based off his critically acclaimed The Jungle Book in 2016. And with a line up of voices that any film studio would be jealous, there was no doubt that it would surpass the films the studio had brought to life over the past few years.

Sadly, it appears Favreau’s priorities may have been wrong in this adaptation, as The Lion King falls flat in this visually stunning but emotionally lacking portrayal. From the first scenes, it’s clear that a lot of effort has been put into the striking visuals and better than real-life depiction of the animals at Pride Rock. All the animals move with such realism and clarity that you’d be forgiven if you thought it was an animal documentary. There’s no contest that it is spectacularly gorgeous and that every frame could be a picture on a wall. But for a story like The Lion King, with its vibrant songs and dramatic sequences, without “expressions” on the faces of the animals, it feels a bit like a voice has been added to real animals – think Babe or Homeward Bound. It comes across hammy, and in addition there are times that you can’t even tell which character is talking because the lack of expression stops from understanding who is whom. Ultimately the photo-realism that was meant to enhance the cinematic experience and bring the story into the modern age, means that it loses dramatic tension and emotional soul that made the original so beloved.

For most of the film, it seems original scenes have been copied shot for shot, nullifying any idea that much has been added to the story or that more character development ensues. The film feels rushed, despite actually being 20 minutes longer, and though you can feel Favreau’s intention for the story to be a bit more dramatic, it simply doesn’t happen when the plot moves along so rapidly and scenes aren’t drawn out. Some have argued that the film is more violent than its original and it’s true; Favreau has put a lot more emphasis on the “reality” of the story insofar that comedic characters like Timon and Pumbaa aren’t really utilised in the same way the original was, and Rafiki (John Kani), the spiritual mandrill who was another comic device, is here relegated to such a small role it could have been removed entirely.

The screenplay side of things, at times scenes feel like vignettes that don’t always tie in together well or flow from one scene to another. There are many times where establishing shots are included for no reason than, it must seem, to show how visually stunning a waterfall or savannah is. For this reason, even though the film seems shorter, these overlong shots are exhausting  , particularly in the earlier part of the film where you can’t help but feel like the script is lacking inspiration. It really picks up in the third act, when the cast all come together and you can feel it a lot of effort was put in to having fun moments as well as the final confrontation at the conclusion of the film.

On the voice side of things, sad to say that character voices sometimes come across as if they existed in a vacuum. They don’t respond to one another, and don’t seem to be in conversation. Rogen and Eichner are brilliant as the comedic duo, even though their talents aren’t used to their full extent in the script, and you can actually feel a sense of rapport that you would hope from this production. Woodard and Ejiofor are both excellent, and Earl Jones is also good, but his gravitas is not as felt as before.

As for the music, Glover’s and Knowles-Carter’s voices are like warm butter melting down hot toast, bringing their talent to the myriad of fantastic sons. Seminal classics like “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” and “Hakuna Matata” are enjoyable blips, but don’t stay with you for much longer after, because it moves along too quickly. And despite the strong vocal work in the songs, as mentioned the glee doesn’t transfer on the “expressions” of the lion or in an exciting way. It’s all a bit dull and sacrifices fun for the realism. The inclusion of original song “Spirit” feels a little out of place and should have been included over the credits.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Lion King, it just doesn’t feel balanced nor an electrifying cinematic experience. The beauty of the lions come to the detriment of emotion that was always at the heart of the original. In saying that there are so few laughs, so few tears and so few reactions that it at times feels like a slog that won’t end. For long time fans will be like something is missing and within a year this adaption will be forgotten. As a director Favreau heavily depends on the musical score to carry the weight of the film but both adults and children alike need to see something to feel something. And in this case, that “something” is not present in this rendition.

Originally published on Back Row, 18 July, 2019.


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