Before I start this review, first a truce. I’d describe The Lion King as a “live-action” remake but I’m not up for going down that road, so for the sake of harmony let’s agree on just a remake, sound? Good. Of all the potential intellectual properties in Disney’s catalog of remakes, The Lion King surely has to be one of their hottest properties. The 1994 animation marked the peak of Disney popularity at that time after seeing a resurgence in quality animation and storytelling. It captured the hearts of anyone who saw it and is easily this year most anticipated Disney remake. While other Disney remakes have come and gone to a very mixed reception, surely this would be the film to united audiences. But unfortunately, The Lion King is the most divisive remake of all which has caused mass disappointment to many, I included.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, it’s only fair that this film is given its day in court, so let’s begin with some of the more positive things about this film. While some are objective to Disney wanting to make every remake as realistic as possible, it’s hard not to applaud the efforts of the animators who work on the CGI. This year The Lion King is CGI done to the highest quality. The detailing of bringing each animal to life is so impeccable, you’d think you were watching a David Attenborough documentary. From the hair to dust clouds, every inch of this photorealistic world is astonishingly beautiful, you feel like run your hands through the grass or touch the animals, it is a glorious living, breathing world made from mind-blowing technicality
The music is iconic as ever with Hans Zimmer once again at the helm. I’m lucky to have seen Zimmer live in concert where during The Lion King set, he brought on Lebo M., the man who provides the vocal to Circle of Life on stage. Admittedly, it can sound as though they’ve literally taken the original soundtrack from the 1994 Lion King and put it in this one, but you can hear in the melody’s that Zimmer is looking to build on the realism of the film through greater authenticity that reflects the African setting.
When you hear the cast in this version of The Lion King, you can clearly see that the filmmakers were trying to stay as close as they could to the voices of the original. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumbaa, I don’t think you get more perfection in casting. James Earl Jones once again voices Mufasa and once again he is faultless, he has the perfect authority dad voice, you hang on every word he says. Donald Glover and Beyoncé are undoubtedly the film’s biggest stars as Simba and Nala who are more appreciated when it comes to their rendition of the songs we’ve come to love.
That all I can say without treading on already spoken waters because there will be a lot of people who will like in this film what they liked in the original Lion King, and for some, this will be fine. However, a question I like to ask about remakes is this, say we were in a world where the original was never made and this remake WAS the original, would it still be as successful? In the case of this film, no. The photorealistic animation, whilst undeniably gorgeous, also carries a heavy drawback. In hand draw animation, you can get away with exaggerated emotions, you can disobey the laws of reality, but in a film where you want to make everything as real as possible, you have to obey these laws methodically, hence you lose the magic that The Lion King had.
I see The Lion King as a classic Shakespearean tale (the original was heavily influenced by Hamlet) thus in the original, the performances and motions of the characters were over the top, giving the film a lot of energy through dialogue, I still get tingles down my spine whenever I hear Scar say “long live the king”. In this remake, all the Shakespearian nature of The Lion King is completely lost for performances that felt like they were phoned in or done for a paycheck. I felt quite irritated that Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), one of the coolest Disney villains, is watered down. His only musical number “Be Prepared”, one of the best villain songs in possibly all of cinema, is boring rather than epic as well as incredibly short.
While this may be a slight redemption for the film, there have been accusations of the film being a literal shot-for-shot remake, I can tell you with sincerity that this is not the case. There are scenes left out that would be virtually impossible to animate in this photorealistic style, so the film leaves them out. That’s all that it does, however, leave them out, there’s no effort to fill those gaps with something original, something that is original but feels different or even something completely new. So what we have is a big gap missing that stretches certain scenes making them feel drawn out.
I’ve never felt more conflicted about a film this year, and I’m sure the conflict this film has started isn’t going to be extinguished for a long time. This Lion King follows the trails of the original, which is to be expected of any remake, however, it’s how close it is that is disturbing. It’s playing the field to safe meaning that it gives off the impression that the filmmakers and those involved don’t feel the need to try hard. The performances, except for a few, are underwhelming, the most memorable scenes aren’t half as epic as the original and the animation is an unfortunate double-edged sword. But at the same time, this is The Lion King, you’re still watching a timeless, classic story with interesting characters in an interesting narrative, this will be enough to say they enjoyed it because it’s bringing this story to a new generation.
I’m not disappointed because I hate the film, I’m disappointed because I can’t say anything new things that were great about this film. The same points that were made in 1994 are the same points being made now, so what’s new?