The 1990’s, also known as Disney’s Renaissance Era in regards to their animated features of the time, is a period of great nostalgia for the young adults of today. It began nearly 30 years ago, making it a prime time for bringing beloved pieces of that past to the present. Disney has buckled down on this, bringing a huge number of live action reboots and retellings with a prominent focus on movies from that period (as well as a few of their timeless early classics). From the Renaissance, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and many more either have already been released or are currently in development. But today, we’ll be looking into the latest animation-to-reality release: The Lion King. The 1994 classic was heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, even beyond the genre of animation (whether or not “animation” in of itself should be considered its own genre or not is a question for another time). The star-studded voice cast that caught the attention of the world remains in the top 10 highest-grossing animated movies of all time. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Disney would create a live action reboot of one of their most successful films. But how does this film fare both standing on its own and when compared to the original? Let’s see if this lion of a film can truly claim to be the king of the jungle.
We open on that well-known African sunrise and song, and are introduced to all of our central characters and themes through the iconic musical number. After that famous opening scene, the story proceeds as usual: a young Simba (JD McCrary) grows up in the Pridelands, learning about the circle of life from his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and being oblivious to the hateful glares of his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Simba, wanting to prove himself brave like his father after a tip from his uncle, goes to the forbidden elephant graveyard with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) after ditching their chaperone Zazu (John Oliver) at the watering hole. There, Simba and Nala meet and almost become lunch for the hyenas, who act as more of a rival clan led by the menacing Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) than just Scar’s minions in this reboot. After being rescued, Simba and Mufasa have their heart-to-heart where we learn about the great kings of the past in the stars, setting the stage for the upcoming tragic twist. The hyena clan’s revised ties to Scar are also explained, as he enlists them to help in killing Mufasa and Simba since lions and hyenas are at war for good hunting grounds. And so the movie continues into the scene that originally scarred children across the world (no, not the death of Bambi’s mom). With his new allies, Scar orchestrates a stampede to kill Mufasa, then convinces Simba that it was his fault and he must run away and never return. After evading some murderous hyenas, Simba does exactly that, fleeing into the desert and passing out from exhaustion only to meet our comic relief right on cue. Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) save Simba and welcome him into their home of no worries and diet of bugs, which he’s happy to escape to after a healthy dose of childhood trauma.
Eventually, years go by and Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) is reunited with Nala (now voiced by Beyoncé), who has more of her own story revealed now. She tells Simba how Scar and the hyenas are destroying their home in the Pridelands and how Scar is trying to convince Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) to be his queen, as she chose Mufasa over Scar a long time ago. We see how Nala had to sneak away on her own in order to find help, despite the danger and even her fellow lionesses’ disapproval. Even though Simba and Nala are happy to see each other and want to be together, Simba feels unable to return and confront Scar, so Rafiki (John Kani) and the spirit of Mufasa appear to steer him in the right direction. Reinvigorated after getting advice from his dead father, Simba and Nala run back to the Pridelands and, with the help of Timon and Pumbaa, make it to Pride Rock. Just as in the original, Simba comes to discover that Scar is the true killer of Mufasa, launching lions and hyenas into a full-out battle for the throne. It all culminates in Simba defeating his uncle, Scar being eaten by the hyenas after betraying them, and the Pridelands being returned to normal over time after Simba and Nala ascend to the throne and restore balance to the land, even having their own cub, Kiara, to keep the circle of life going.
When you experience the Lion King remake, it seems to stick closer to the source material than any Disney live action film before it, especially in regards to the plot. Depending on your taste, you may like it this way or you may have preferred that they put a unique twist on it, but as it is, this is almost a shot-for-shot remake during some scenes. Even a great bit of the dialogue is completely the same or only slightly reworded for this remake. As far as the visuals go, the beloved musical sequences especially have breathtaking shots of the majestic African savanna in which the story takes place. It is undeniably cool to see the famous scenes taking place with extremely realistic animals, and although technically every character is computer animated, they look completely believable. The technology used to bring the animals in the Jungle Book live action remake to life seems to have been expanded upon here, although the Jungle Book did keep a certain expressiveness in its main cast. When it comes to 2019’s The Lion King, the characters are so photorealistic that it can be the film’s greatest strength and weakness. It’s obviously a technological marvel and beautiful to look at, but it can hinder emotional moments at times since these CGI characters can’t emote nearly as much as their hand drawn counterparts. For example, when Mufasa dies, Simba can’t cry or look very sad at all despite his voice actor trying his hardest to convey the heartbreak of the scene. This makes the scene less impactful, as humans are evolved to empathize with human faces and movements, which is why non-documentary movies about animals have to anthropomorphize their expressions and body language at least a bit. Full animation works best in this department, but we know it can be done in semi-realistic CGI because 2016’s The Jungle Book already proved it. Moving forward, should Disney do any more live action remakes with an animal-heavy cast, the animals will have recovered their full range of facial emotes even if it means sacrificing a little bit of realism.
On the other hand, as previously mentioned about the voice cast, everyone is doing their hardest to make up for the neutral expressions by giving an excellent voice performance. Nearly everyone delivers their lines well and have energized, talented singing voices to boot. McCrary and Joseph as young Simba and Nala do great, with McCrary especially working hard in both the upbeat and intense scenes to bring us a fresh young Simba. They do great in I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, always energetic even if they can’t be on top of a tower of animals. James Earl Jones also does great as expected in returning to his role as Mufasa, and Eichner and Rogen have the best lines of the film, always sounding like they’re having fun, especially doing an entertaining rendition of Hakuna Matata. Glover and Beyoncé are amazing if somewhat underused in the film, both with stunning vocals and solid dialogue delivery as well. Can You Feel The Love Tonight was a fantastic performance, showing off how well the two harmonize together for the ballad. The only main cast voice that didn’t stand out was Ejiofor’s Scar who, without the effortless charm of Jeremy Irons, fell into the same predicament as the live action Jafar, in that he was less memorable. Be Prepared was also cut in half and performed as more of a monologue than a song, as most of the words weren’t even sung. Despite this, the rest of the cast holds their own and even tries to bring something new to the table for each of their characters.
Overall, The Lion King 2019 is a trip into nostalgia for one of Disney’s greatest films and its many fans. The CGI, despite its inherent limitations, does look very lovely and the artists that brought it to life obviously spent a great amount of time perfecting even the smallest of details to look completely real, which is a testament to the dedication of the team behind it. Not much has been changed of the story to bring it to life, at times it’s almost as if the audio could’ve been kept from the original and remastered the visuals only. So if you’ve always wanted to see the animated films that you love reworked into live action but weren’t exactly looking for a whole new take on the tale, then your dreams may have come true! Even if not, you can still admire the artistry, the attention to detail, the voice acting, the singing, and of course, the cute baby Simba. All opinions aside, everybody loves baby Simba. This is a fact.
4.1 STARS (OUT OF FIVE)