The Lion King (2019) by Jon Favreau
Review by Courtney Anderson
I’m not sure what — or whom — any of these remakes are for.
The Lion King (2019) is the . . . seventh? Eighth? Ninth? I’m not even sure because I’ve lost count of how many damn remakes Disney has made in the past…what? Four or five years? Either way, The Lion King is the latest remake in a series of remakes. It’s the most recent development in what seems to be Disney’s plan to completely recreate all of their classics, trading in the magic of the animated films for the banality of photo-realism.
There are a bunch of better-constructed essays — both written and video — that can explain all the issues with constantly remaking properties from the very recent past. I almost don’t think I should add to the cacophonous chorus of bleating.
But on Thursday, I watched The Lion King in oscillating states of bafflement, boredom, slight amusement and frustration, and the difficulty of dealing with all those conflicting emotions leaves me no choice but to bleat until my heart is (somewhat) content.
To be fair, I didn’t hate this movie. There were moments where I was actually interested in what I was watching and having a little bit of fun. The film’s score is as beautiful as it’s always been, which isn’t surprising since Hans Zimmer returned to recreate the iconic score. I couldn’t help but coo at how adorable baby Simba and baby Nala look, and I greatly enjoyed the voice work of JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, who play baby Simba and baby Nala respectively.
Other moments of joy were sparked by the voice acting for Scar, Timon and Pumba. Chiwetel Eijofor really leaned into the dramatic evil of Scar’s character, making him menacing and terrifying, yet entertaining. And even though Eijofor doesn’t get to sing very much of Scar’s signature song “Be Prepared,” the portion of the song he does sing is pitch-perfect.
And Timon and Pumba are just delightful. Billy Eichner plays Timon as if he were born for the role. Eichner imbues the meerkat with charm and liveliness, and he steals every scene he’s in. Eichner’s Timon is the perfect companion for Seth Rogen’s loveable, a little bit dimwitted Pumba. Eichner and Rogen have fantastic chemistry, and their pairing really enriches the film.
So, no, the movie wasn’t an incredibly hard watch or anything. I wasn’t terribly miserable at any point. I was mostly just . . . bored. And irritated with myself for being bored. And that’s my entire problem.
This movie had absolutely nothing going for in emotionally. There was no charm, no spark. No magic. There was nothing that really reached out and grabbed me the way the 1994 animated version is able to. All the personality of the animated The Lion King has been sucked out, and we are left with a bunch of life-like animals — and the humans voicing them — looking and sounding like they’re going through their contractually obligated motions.
The lack of personality is evident throughout the film, but there are certain scenes that make it extremely apparent. Take, for instance, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” sung excellently by JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph and John Oliver as Zazu. While the 1994 version of this scene features bright pink flamingos, dancing zebras and colorful lights flashing all around while Simba and Nala evade Zazu, the 2019 version just shows Simba and Nala running through a watering hole while a bunch of elephants obscure Zazu’s view of them.
And then there’s “Hakuna Matata,” where Simba, Timon and Pumba’s cheerful stroll across a seemingly never-ending log--where they shake their heads to the rhythm, their silhouettes back lit by a giant moon--looks utterly dull now. It’s just a lion, a meerkat and a warthog walking across a log with their heads bent towards the ground. Everything just looks and feels flat.
Part of that flatness comes from the fact that these scarily realistic animals can’t emote. The animals’ faces can’t change, no matter how much effort the actors were putting forth. (Not that many of the actors were putting that much effort in. Most of them sounded like they were just reading their lines to collect a check and go home.)
Most of the lions have a blank, kind of bored expression on their face, which creates a disconnect between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing. We’re hearing Eijofor maliciously and dramatically spell out his plan to murder Mufasa and ascend to the throne, but we’re seeing Scar stare blankly a group of hyenas as he climbs up a bunch of rocks. It’s not Eijofor’s fault that Scar’s signature scene and song ends up being a dud. It’s just that those images don’t inspire much emotion.
That’s the major consequence of such a steadfast commitment to “live action” --all the small yet fantastical stuff that gives the film its heart and soul is stripped away. It ends up feeling like I’m watching an Animal Planet special, and yes, I know that’s a comparison a lot of writers have made, but that’s legitimately what watching this movie felt like. It’s Animal Planet with murder and singing.
Towards the end of the movie, I had a moment where I blinked at the screen and wondered, Why did they make this? That’s when a wave of confusion came over me. Why did they make this movie? What was the reason? I didn’t see anything that improved upon or added to the experience of the animated film. That’s been the big issue with most of these remakes--they seem to exist without reason. Movies are nearly shot-for-shot recreations, and it’s hard to see them as anything other than sure-fire ways to continually generate revenue.
Thankfully, the 1994 animated movie isn’t going anywhere. I can still watch it and enjoy my completely unrealistic yet emotionally-intense cartoon lions. No one’s childhood is ruined. It’s just that our adulthood is a lot less fun.