That was the big debate of 2019 concerning Jon Favreau’s remake of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Africa: Could it be nominated for best animated feature seeing as everything is made from computers despite coming close to mimicking everyday life? If it’s considered live-action, then so is every Pixar movie that’s pushed the boundaries of realism like Coco or The Good Dinosaur. But another question remains unanswered: is a remake of the highest point of the Disney Renaissance necessary without bringing up financial gain as the primary motivation? You know The Lion King, I know The Lion King, we all know The Lion King. We sang the songs, loved the characters, and tended to the wounds that left us with in tears. Now it’s back again, but not as a re-release (which probably would’ve made as much money as any other realistic take on a hand drawn classic), but as a from the ground up showcase on how far technology has come in rendering detailed fur on animals. Nothing else was accomplished in the process, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Fair warning, there will be spoilers regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the hand-drawn masterpiece.
For those who’ve been living under a rock for twenty-five years, The Lion King follows young cub Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover as the adult lion) who’s learning from his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) on how to rule a kingdom. Lurking in the shadows is his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who desires the throne for himself to the point of enlisting the banished hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba).
If you’ve been following this site fore a while, you’ll know that this was the penultimate movie on my list of unwanted live-action Disney remakes. The story was already perfect and didn’t need improving. And apparently the studio knew that because absolutely nothing except the most important details were changed to make room for padded moments (the mouse in the opening gets two minutes dedicated to his travels) which means there’s even less character development. This wouldn’t be a problem if Jon Favreau didn’t go on camera and blatantly tell everyone that this wouldn’t be a shot for shot remake. After all, he is the only director who successfully changed a formula without sacrificing the spirit with his previous effort 2016’s The Jungle Book. Whether or not you like the final product, it altered enough elements to stand on its own legs, and became the most well-received remake among newcomers and Disney fans. Here, Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson are pawns for the studio to use the same technology minus what made their take on both Rudyard Kipling’s novel and the sixties interpretation a fair compromise. You name a line from the original and you can repeat it to yourself word by word for the entire runtime. And if you turn it into a drinking game with friends, you’ll all take a trip to the hospital by the time the elephant graveyard scene ends. From start to finish, there’s absolutely no surprises in new content, which is ironic because the theater at our screening had a day care center playing the hand-drawn while people were paying thirteen dollars a ticket for the exact same experience.
Now does the new cast bring a breath of fresh air to their roles? Not really. For the most part they’re very one note in delivery being confined to the same lines without any new dialogue. Even James Earl Jones, who’s mastered this reprising role as much as his Darth Vader resurgence, doesn’t reach the same emotional points because he sounds tired and bored, not helped by how the animals fail to react with convincing human mannerisms (more on that in a bit). But this is a musical so surely there has to be some singing talent in this, right? Strangely enough no one, save Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, can carry a tune in this which makes it even more frustrating. This had some of the most memorable songs when stacked against it’s golden age siblings, but none of the new voices know how to convey emotion while hitting the right notes. As such, like with everything else in this bargain bin slap in the face, none of the songs ignite the powerful energy or catchy rhythm for memorable tunes like I Just Can’t Wait to Be King. Don’t even get me started on how Chiwetel Ejiofor falls flat when Be Prepared shows up for one minute. Why get so many big names if none of them can carry a tune? Not to mention half of Hans Zimmer’s score feels like they took the original soundtrack and slapped a new cover on it sounding more archival than remastered.
The only saving grace with any trace of originality is Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. It feels like they were allowed to improvise their lines and not be held captive by the script. Every scene with them brings out genuine laughs and enjoyment that was non-existent everywhere else. Which proves how low a bar this sets on its own and compared to its predecessor. Many of its defenders might be asking, “Can’t you review the remake without comparing it to the animation?” If it’s Cinderella, yes. If it’s The Jungle Book, yes. If it’s Pete’s Dragon, yes. If it’s Christopher Robin, yes. If it’s Dumbo, yes. Because all of those took enough liberties to set themselves apart yet still retained the spirit of their predecessors no matter how good or bad they turned out. But The Lion King is literally line for line, shot for shot, lyric by lyric the exact same experience and thus can’t be judged as such. Even people who like these realistic takes admit they’ll never be better than their older counterparts. So what’s the point? To make another billion dollars while sacrificing the artistic integrity? What has this company become?
The animation is certainly amazing to a degree. The plains of Africa look very lush and bright during the recreation of Circle of Life. The fur, feathers and movements feel very down to earth and leap out of the screen without using the 3D format. But in that lies the one fatal flaw that makes the entire experiment a fool’s errand. Real animals don’t have unique facial expressions like humans and communicate through actions. No matter what situation Simba is in, he has the same blank face when feeling happy, sad, angry, regretful, or scared, and we can’t get attached to him because of the realism. That’s why animation exists in the first place: to bring the impossible to life. So when Mufasa’s death occurs in a very scaled down repeat of the stampede, not a single tear is shed because one, we know it’s coming, two the scope is completely sacrificed for a slower, lethargic, “realistic” look that doesn’t even come close to the danger of the original, and three the animal expressions are so blank and unrelatable that we can’t connect with Simba when he’s begging his father to wake up. I hate bringing this up with every new live-action Disney remake, but this company makes it too easy to repeat one’s statements on realism vs animation. This isn’t some fancy trailer that’s shown at E3, this is part of a three act structure that’s supposed to make you feel many emotions when its main animal cast can’t muster up the strength for a single smile.
For all the new advances time has given this, it’s baffling that this is what we end up with to the point where Can You Feel the Love Tonight is set during the daytime. How do you overlook that one important detail? What’s the point of the new technology? To be a cynical attempt to persuade audiences that computer animation is the dominant art form in the United States? There are plenty of video games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 that use realistic animation to do something other than show off the technology, even if it’s a remake of an older game.
2019’s The Lion King stands as a testament of cinema pushing beyond the boundaries of the Disney brand to become one of the worst remakes of all time. The visuals are an amazing achievement and Timon and Pumbaa still get a lot out of their new voice actors. But in terms of a new spin on the story, a different voice cast, a return of familiar songs, and a chance to improve on any problems people did have with the plot, it’s a soulless, passionless, heartless, misdirected, tone deaf, atrocious, lousy, dreadful, awful, abominable, pathetic, greedy tech demo pretending to be something it’s not. And because director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson are reduced to pawns for hire by the studio, it doesn’t even have the director’s familiar traits. This was made just to ensure that it’ll make a billion dollars only to be forgotten when they toss it out for the next remake in the works. And because of that, it’s actually worse than 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. We all know this going to make a lot of money on the name alone because people will eat up anything they remember from the past, but if you want a better Lion King that’s either live-action or takes more liberties, there’s plenty of other options to choose from. Marvel’s Black Panther has often been compared to this seeing as both are owned by Disney and deal with a son becoming a king to his homeland. The sixteen bit video game adaptation was recently re-released on current gen consoles with levels that were deleted scenes in the animated edition. It test your platforming skills no matter the difficulty. The pre-sequel Lion King 1 1/2 took a different approach to the main story by adapting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Timon and Pumbaa to become one of the best direct-to-DVD sequels. And the Broadway edition, if it ever comes to your town, brings its own spin to the tale, keeps the vibrant colors of Africa, and uses real humans that can both act and sing: a necessary element when casting for a musical. Any of those choices are great alternatives because with this despicable cash-in on one of the most important animated movies of all time, Disney is putting their behind in their past.