Disney's remake of the 1994 cinematic classic The Lion King is one of Disney's animated "hold my beer" moments, though the paint-by-numbers remake is also a surprisingly soulless endeavor that fails in nearly every way to recapture the original's simplicity, wonder, and emotional resonance. The Lion King isn't by any measure a true failure, no matter how disappointing an experience it actually is, precisely because Disney beautifully capitalizes on the technological advances that have arrived over the past 25 years. However, somewhat surprisingly, this film isn't nearly as immersive and involving as its predecessor and you're left wondering by film's end "Was this all really necessary?"
Then you remember "Oh yeah, profit!"
So yeah, it was necessary.
The Lion King is a film remade for the adults. It's doubtful that the kiddoes will care at all about the technological advancements at the core of this otherwise almost painfully redundant experience. The African savannahs in this film are truly mesmerizing, the wild beasts more magnificently mesmerizing even if they are, almost without exception, devoid of the personalities that made them so endearing, and occasionally frightening, in the original film.
With more of a dedication to realism, this Jon Favreau directed effort feels less fantastic even as Favreau himself has been quoted as saying that he was channeling Walt while shooting the film. If so, the result is even more disappointing. The Lion King seemingly fails to realize all those magical qualities that made the film, despite its acknowledged flaws, a film that we've grown to love even 25 years later.
There's simply no question - the 1994 The Lion King is a vastly superior film.
For some, the mere fact that The Lion King is a visual feast will be enough to consider it a success. For most, I'd dare say, the film's Psycho-like dedication to its original source material will become a sore spot as the limited ways in which Favreau deviates from that source material are almost painfully awkward and disappointing.
Simba (voiced as a youngster by JD McCrary, then by Donald Glover) experiences the exact same fate as before involving his father, Mustafa (James Earl Jones), a fate for which he readily accepts the blame as encouraged by his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Exiling himself out of guilt, he immerses himself in the playfulness of Meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumba (Seth Rogen), both of the latter two vocal performances easily among the film's highlights. Eventually, of course, his beloved Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) will convince him to return to his rightful place in leadership. Other key vocal performances include those memorable hyenas Kamari (Keegan Michael-Key), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and Azizi (Eric Andre), though their scenes here feel flatter and less magical left to unfold in the realism with which Favreau directs the film.
The musical selections here are for the most part disappointing when compared to their predecessors, again largely related to scenes that unfold with more naturalism than magnificence. In the 1994 films, these scenes unfolded with magic and excitement and occasionally menace. Here, the menace is nearly always truncated and the playfulness and innocence is all but absent. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" lacks the roar of the original, while Scar's "Be Prepared" is rendered surprisingly timid thanks to animation that makes Scar far less threatening here despite the supposed naturalism.
There was an emotional resonance that led to an emotional investment in the first film - it's for the most part gone here, the film's masterful visuals having to rely on their own and the result is nearly always less than satisfying. There's no denying, at least with a straight face, that Beyonce has the vocal chaps to pull off the soaring emotions of her songs here, but woven into the fabric of unconvincing animation it all feels rather overwrought and lacking in authenticity. At one point, I found myself saying to myself "Great song. I don't believe it."
That's pretty much how I felt about the entire film. It had so much potential for greatness, but just plain never came close to it.
Everything about The Lion King feels like not much more than a calculated money grab, an animated Disney flick with "hold my beer" ambitions and Nic Cage "gotta pay off those coffins" bones. It's hard not to picture that most people are going to find themselves home after watching The Lion King, and there's no doubt many of you are going to check it out for yourself no matter the reviews, and within hours you're likely to pull out your DVD or Blu-ray of the 1994 original, sit down with your popcorn, and fall in love with that original film all over again.
Sometimes, less is more.
Far from the travesty that some will exclaim it to be, it's also impossible to deny that The Lion King is still one of 2019's biggest disappointments.
Can you feel the love tonight?
Um, no. Actually I can't.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic