Review: The Lion King (2019)

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Jon Favreau

Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Brenda Chapman (story), Irene Mecchi (characters), Jonathan Roberts (characters), Linda Woolverton (characters)

Composer: Hans Zimmer

Starring: James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Beyoncé

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Drama

Weren’t we just here? With what used to be a wholesome household name, Disney now seems to barely let a month slip by without pumping out product that haemorrhages from its glory days.

Now it’s The Lion King’s turn. Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast may have struck close, but this one will surely hit “straight in the childhood.” It literally was for me. The Little Mermaid may have been my first cinematic experience, but it was 1994’s The Lion King that shaped it. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in kindergarten, looking upwards as my teacher wheeled the tube TV to the centre of the room, popping the VHS tape into the player that was chained down to the stand (ah, those were the days!). We absorbed that film. Lived it. Breathed it. Ran around pretending we were lions in the playground. It was the only movie I ever knew by heart, and my sister and I would recite the lines and songs to each other at triple the speed.

It is exciting to think the next generation may now share in the same experience. Yet while Jon Favreau did a wonderful job with The Jungle Book, this isn’t a film that’s screaming for a remake. This is top tier Disney they’re messing with now. For me at least, it’s a 10/10 film that’s difficult to fault, one that’s currently sitting high up on IMDB’s Top 250 list. It does feel like it’s being remade for completionist reasons (as surely we can’t let a single 90’s Disney film go untouched!) as opposed to being a by-product of genuine inspiration. With the CGI being pushed to its absolute limits, this project is both pleasantly intriguing and too potentially horrific to look away.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Although this is an animated film, the animals are hyper-realistic, like watching something from a documentary. Lions fight with each other, brawl with hyenas, and chase and snap after prey, all of it looking close to the real thing. One animal intentionally murders another by flinging them into a stampede of wildebeest. Animals are repeatedly flung to the side, either thrown from a lion’s jaws, or after being tossed by a horned animal.

Bones are seen scattered throughout the land. No blood is seen, though a lion’s lifeless body is found, and one scene features a lion eating an antelope (the lion’s body blocks the camera from seeing the bite marks). A raging fire burns close to the characters. There are several times when a character falls from a height – in one instance a character dies. One animal is devoured by a pack of hyenas (only the silhouette of this action is seen, and the camera cuts quickly away). There is a jump scare where a lion suddenly chases some of the characters.

Language/Crude Humor: A warthog with a flatulence problem is seen “clearing out” an area; other animals flee in fear from the bad smell. The word “farting” is used once. There are several other references to passing wind.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: The pride of lions follow a monarchical regime. Male lions talk about choosing a lioness to have as their Queen. A lion and lioness nuzzle each other while a song about love plays in the background.

Spiritual Content: The film contrasts two different worldviews: One where everything has its rightful place in the world, whilst the other is more existentialist, where life is meaningless and impacts nothing. The film follows the belief the deceased still look over those who are living, and their wisdom and essence still lives on through their loved ones.

Other Negative Content: A character repeatedly manipulates and lies in order to pursue their own selfish and destructive desires. A catchy tune promotes a lifestyle of ambivalence towards ones own responsibilities.

Positive Content: The film promotes the need to accept painful past experiences in order to learn and grow. It demonstrates the power of compassion and the importance of giving rather than taking. Due to its realism, it can also be used as an educational tool regarding African wildlife and how crucial it is to establish sustainable ecosystems.

Review

The Lion King is an ethereally bizarre experience with its strengths and weaknesses flitting about more wildly than a certain red-billed hornbill’s morning report. It succeeds and fails in the most unexpected of places.

By now you would have no doubt heard the news from preliminary reviews; whilst the animation is spectacular, the lack of emotion exhibited from the hyper-realistic looking animals fails to capture the same magic as the original. Indeed, this seems true about every Disney remake, and while it is once again an accurate assessment, this time around it’s a bit more complicated.

Set in the open plains of Tanzania, a deadly family drama unfolds within a pride of lions. With a plot to rival Hamlet, an overlooked male lion, Scar, plots to overthrow his ruling brother, Mufasa, and his newborn cub, Simba, in order to secure his place as king of the pridelands.

The Lion King is one of Disney’s few tales set entirely within the animal kingdom with no human characters. This fact alone is what separates this production from all the other Disney live-action remakes. While some narratives genuinely deserved an update (Dumbo, The Jungle Book), the movies featuring Disney’s trademarked princesses tended to foster a Broadway musical vibe in their live adaptations. Indeed, that appeared to be their purpose (aside from making money) – to be musicals for children.

However, as hard as it was marketed as such, The Lion King isn’t live-action. It’s still an animated film, and in many respects it’s still bound by that genre, never truly free to obtain the same stage performance vibe the others achieved. Yet its stunning realism unexpectedly harkens comparisons to the documentary genre, and the film is oddly conditioned by those sets of rules as well.

Since we normally only see lions within a documentary setting, it’s jarring every time this family drama veers away from its sense of naturalism. For instance, it’s genuinely odd to see lionesses with only one cub. The conversation about Simba and Nala being betrothed is rather creepy this time around, as it feels all the more obvious they would be related. Then there’s the singing… but we’ll get to that later.

Yet on the plus side, the hyenas are a credible threat in this rendition. It’s easy to see how a lion cub could fall victim to their strong jaws. They’re a challenging force; even a lion Mufasa’s size would have some trouble fending off a clan of hyenas, and the distribution of power feels like it could shift at any moment.

Yet we all know the real villain is Scar, and while we’ll miss Jeremy Irons’ iconic voice, his portrayal in this version is surprisingly better. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings a wonderfully sinister amount of subtext to Scar’s dialogue, dragging the narrative’s Shakespearean roots back into the fore. You will never know how much you needed lion politics in your life until you see this movie. It’s fascinating, and it’s what the original sorely lacked; something that wasn’t noticed until now.

It all builds an immersive atmosphere until a certain bratty lion cub starts belting out I Just Can’t Wait to be King. One moment we’re watching Scar skilfully playing the game of thrones, and the next we’re dropkicked into a musical interlude that feels more intrusive than whimsically informative, painfully reminding the adult audience they are indeed watching one of those kids films.

The remake may copy the original narrative beat for beat, but fans that have committed the 1994 film to memory will notice it’s not shot for shot, unlike what some critics are claiming. More things have been added than subtracted (such as new dialogue and extended sequences). However, the action in some scenes has been altered in order to cater to the movie’s naturalistic appearance. That’s right – say goodbye to the hula and the pyramid of African wildlife around the waterhole.

Instead we’re treated to lacklustre choreography and antics. The same issue occurred in Aladdin, where the action on screen never popped or created the same amount of pizazz as seen in the original; an underwhelming performance for such a grand set of musical tunes. Yet the criticism is harsher this time around, as The Lion King is animated, and therefore doesn’t have as much of an excuse – it can be refined and redrawn until the moment does work, not confined to the limitations of real world physics and timing.

This is what makes The Lion King such a weird experience. It hangs lifelessly between the real world and illustration, adopting the problems of both. All the moments that do work are generally the new scenes that have been crafted especially for this remake. It’s the adapted content that tends to make the film stumble. Sometimes it’s the dialogue or the tone, and other times it’s the lyrics of the songs. At times it can feel forced – shoehorned in – as though director Jon Favreau was locked into certain creative decisions due to fan service.

This is most obvious during the song Be Prepared. Reports state it was originally not present in the film, though thanks to an uproar from fans, it was added last minute. Sometimes fans are right… this is not one of them. It’s unnecessary. Almost cheesy. In many ways, Jon Favreau should have proverbially stuck to his guns, ignored the need to cater to people’s nostalgia, and built the movie from the ground up.

This remake then fosters an interesting question: What is the true essence of The Lion King? What are the key factors that must be included for it to retain its identity? Many will say the music is inseparable, given its Oscar winning score, award winning songs, and the fact it’s also the highest grossing Broadway production of all time. Yet this remake seems to sacrilegiously suggest maybe we have all overinflated its importance.

Hans Zimmer’s score is still powerful, but sometimes it’s too overwrought for the subtleties of the naturalistic animation. The characters’ faces don’t convey the same level of expression this time around (although for those who have a knack for reading animals, the animators do an amazing job in adding in all the little nuances in the ears, body, and tail – they actually express a lot, though most audiences will miss out). Timon and Pumbaa do manage to pull off their songs, mainly because those show-stealing characters can get away with anything. Oddly, the songs that work best are the ones presented in a voiceover format, most likely because it’s similar to how documentaries are exhibited.

Yet whilst the vision of realistic lions singing the story’s signature songs doesn’t work this time around, the film does manage to create its own sense of magic. There are moments of pure beauty; the stillness of watching a lion stare upwards towards the night sky, or the almost mystical pursuit of a baboon through mist-hidden trees. The Lion King feels like a fairy tale that’s passed throughout the animal kingdom, whispered from species to species in an almost reverent manner, which we humans have only just become privileged enough to hear. It’s as though we’ve pulled back a layer and are viewing a hidden world, vibrant and lush, with entire dynastical histories that have always been there but rarely noticed.

The cynic may say this is simply a cash grab, but look deeper and one can see Jon Favreau’s vision buried deep beneath all the scenes he was obligated to include. The original is still the best – a perfect blend of drama and music. Yet while the Broadway musical focused more on the songs and produced an impressionistic rendition of the Serengeti through puppetry, the film remake instead explores the opposite side of the spectrum; pushing the drama and delivering all the minute details. It’s Disney’s love letter to the animal kingdom.

It’s hard to recommend this movie to all the die-hard fans out there. Did this film ever have a shot of being wholesomely embraced? Instead, this is a shout out to all the people, young and old, who loved the original film simply because it was about animals. It’s for the people who never developed an affinity for the stories revolving around human princes and princesses; for the kids that stare into the eyes of an animal and wonder what their life might bring; the dreamers that one day desire to work out in the wildest of wilds, in the hidden places where humans rarely tread; or for those who have had their heart stolen by the beating spirit of Africa. Leave your preconceived notions at the door (Timon and Pumbaa only tease you for it anyway), and go watch this film on the biggest screen possible, in 3D if tolerable. To all you animal geeks out there, this one is for you.

Now, may we all just take a moment to appreciate Cats, and how it taught us how bad this “live action” adaptation of The Lion King really could have been.

Positives

+ Animation
+ You don't want to mess with the hyenas
+ Scar
+ The lion politics
+ The extremely detailed nuances in body movement

Negatives

- Naturalistic-looking lions shouldn't sing
- Adapted content feels forced at times
- Only those with a knack for reading animals will feel their expressions
- It's weird in the weirdest ways
- The cynic inside you will scream it's a giant cash grab for the entire runtime

The Bottom Line

It isn’t as catastrophic as people are making it out to be. It doesn’t pull off every aspect of the original, (such as the music… which, ok, is a big part of it), though it is magical in its visual prowess. Wildly inconsistent in quality, it swerves from stabbing straight in the childhood to creating moments of aching beauty filled with an almost spiritual experience of the African plains. Fans will revile this revisit down memory lane, but animal geeks will be transported to a fictional world, one that’s rarely explored in cinema with the same level of seriousness and intrigue.

 

7.5

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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