OnScreen Review: "The Lion King"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

When I saw Cinderella in 2015 and The Jungle Book in 2016, I thought Disney might be onto something with these live-action remakes. They were fresh and creative and enhanced the previous animated versions of the story in new and interesting ways. I think both were arguably even better than the originals. I hoped they were a sign of things to come for the future live-action adaptations Disney had planned. Three years later, and I am far less hopeful now than I was after having seen Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and now The Lion King.

To be fair, none of these movies are downright awful and all of them have had one or two elements to recommend seeing them, even if those one or two elements are almost always something visual and not related to storytelling. To call The Lion King a live-action adaptation is something of a misnomer given that all the animals are CGI creations. The photorealism of the animals is certainly jaw-dropping in its attention to detail and life-like appearance. I’m not sure how much of what is on screen is CGI, perhaps all of it is, which is all the more impressive because it looks like it was actually filmed in Africa by a BBC documentary crew or Disneynature feature. The film is also half an hour longer than the animated version of the story, so obviously scenes were added that did not exist before, and director Jon Favreau has stated that he even pulled some elements from the Broadway musical version of the story and included it in the film.

However, too much of this movie looks and feels like a shot for shot, beat for beat remake of the 1994 animated classic (and at 25 years, you can barely call it “classic”). Even though I can’t recall the last time I saw the animated version (probably at least 20 years ago), all of it quickly came flooding back to memory very easily because all the songs and dialogue felt familiar. It’s an incredibly faithful adaptation. Which is something of a problem; it’s too familiar. There is no freshness to the story of the young cub-who-would-be-king Simba running away from home and growing up with his friends Timon and Pumbaa while his Uncle Scar assumes the mantle of king and quickly turns Pride Rock into a wasteland.

Favreau directed The Jungle Book as well, so it’s surprising that there is something lacking this time around where the film just does not connect in the way that The Jungle Book did. Perhaps it’s the complete lack of a human character in a sea of CGI animals, even though The Jungle Book was populated with CGI, photorealistic animals, there was still a human boy actor at the center of most of it all that grounded it somewhat in the real world. There is a warmth and joy in the original Lion King that seems to be lacking here as well, perhaps from the lack of facial emotions shown on the animals. When Simba and Nala are reunited and she confronts him about returning instead of continuing to run from his past, you can hear the emotion in the voices of the actors (Donald Glover and Beyoncé, respectively). But on screen, Nala turns and leaves, Simba pauses for a beat, his face expressionless, and his simply turns and walks the other way, end of scene. There’s a disconnect here that was not present in The Jungle Book.

While the voice cast assembled is impressive, some of them don’t seem to fit. I’m a huge Donald Glover fan and Beyoncé has proven herself capable as an actress too, but their performances did not blow me away. JD McCary as the voice of young Simba also didn’t do anything for me, though I thought Shahadi Wright Joseph sounded pretty natural as young Nala. Outside of those roles, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen stood out as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, bringing some fresh takes on those sidekick roles. I also enjoyed the repartee between Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre as two of the hyenas. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor I really enjoy, but his Scar lacks much of the menace and conniving that made Jeremy Irons’ performance so memorable, and it’s also a slightly toned-down character too. Sadly, James Earl Jones returning to voice Mufasa felt too much like stunt casting. I think it would’ve benefited from getting someone else in there to give their own take on it, I would have been very interested in Laurence Fishburne in that role.

I don’t know what the answer is with these adaptations, but I’m beginning to think that these adaptations of more modern Disney animated films are struggling because there is not enough distance between the original and the remake and the stories rely too much on songs to carry the story. Cinderella and The Jungle Book had a song or two, but not extended musical numbers and not by photorealistic animals. They were also older stories that were more than 50 years old and could be told in fresh ways with some new life breathed into them. With movies that have been in everyone’s home video rotations for the last 30 years, as well as being adapted for Broadway, there is very little new to bring to the table with The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin. I suspect the same will be the case for The Little Mermaid.

The arc of Pride Rock in the movie feels like it is paralleling how these Disney adaptations are going; at the beginning, it was teeming with life and growth and possibility, but it is now starting to look a little rundown, soulless, and, if things don’t change, it could start to look desolate. Aside from stunning visuals, there is a lack of substance in The Lion King that is becoming much more common in these Disney adaptations. It will make a ton of money at the box office, but people would be better off enjoying the original in this case.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars