The plethora of Disney remakes that we have received in the last few years (and will continue to receive for a while to come) has left the general public with mixed emotions. On the one hand, most of them are actually quite fun, as well as an interesting way to introduce new audiences to older films. However, there is also the argument that Disney have created a very generous cash cow with these incessant remakes that play on the nostalgia of their audiences by merely reusing the stories that we have already seen before. When it comes to 2019’s entirely CGI remake of the 1994 classic The Lion King, it falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book) clearly had a specific photo-realistic vision, but his work here doesn’t seem to have the same payoff as it did with his remake of The Jungle Book, a film that was arguably far more suited to style. Whilst The Lion King certainly has positives, its actual purpose as a film is difficult to determine.
Upon watching The Lion King, it is impossible not to comment on the incredible advancements in technology that we are seeing on the screen. From the opening shots of the sun rising above the African plains, to the dark and dismal elephant boneyard, to the lush greenery of Timon and Pumbaa’s jungle home, the scenery and the cinematography is astonishing on all levels. The film is entirely CGI (except for one scene), an amazing achievement in itself due to the level of detail; there are moments when it is easy to mistake what’s on screen for a nature documentary. Particularly impressive are the animal characters, as you can see every tuft of fur and every stretching muscle as they run. The time and effort that has been put into the animation is nothing short of remarkable, and it does elevates the film, making it feel truly unique.
That being said, the decision to commit fully to the photo-realistic element can also be the film’s downfall at times. I personally didn’t feel that blank, emotionless faces ruined the film, as I could tell that there was definitely some sentiment animated into the animal’s faces throughout — particularly in the more emotional scenes, such as the infamous moment where Simba runs for his life from a wildebeest stampede, or the finale where Simba confronts his uncle Scar. However, there are just as many times where the characters do indeed have a blank gaze as they talk to one another or attempt to emote.
Scar actually seemed to benefit from a bit of a vacant expression at times, due to his villainous and psychopathic nature, but this did not particularly work with anyone else. The appeal of the original animation was the relatable characters that were made all the more lovable by an expressive nature that added to their vibrant personalities. A scene between Simba and Nala in which they argue about Simba returning to Pride Rock to take his place as king is poignant in the 1994 version, but here it merely fades into insignificance, as neither lion seems to express much other than indifference.
Song numbers also suffer due to this reliance on realism. “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” are songs that had colourful and visually entertaining sequences in the 1994 film, but these are scaled down to the extent that both songs consist mostly of the animals running around, singing, and doing little else. This happens to the extent where what is on screen doesn’t even match up to the lyrics. For example, in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Simba and Nala sing to the other animals, “Everybody look left! Everybody look right!” In the original, the animals all charged left and right when they sung, whereas in the remake, not even the cubs themselves look in any particular direction. Instead, they all continue running forward, a byproduct of realism that not only strips away a good deal of the fun from the musical numbers, but also strips away a fair amount of the personality.
It is impossible to talk about The Lion King without mentioning the accompanying soundtrack. What we get with the remake is pretty enjoyable, if not a little lacklustre at times (check out my discussion on the new soundtrack in more detail linked here), as classics like “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” shine with great vocal performances. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make “Hakuna Matata” their own, whilst paying homage to Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella with their witty partnership and charm. Donald Glover and JD McCrary also elevate the song as older and younger Simba, with both actors playing off of Rogen and Eichner well to capture the animals’ friendship. The stand out number for me was “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which is bursting with energy from JD McCrary as young Simba and Shahdi Wright-Joseph as young Nala. Both are supremely talented, and their voices are perfectly suited for a pair of naughty lion cubs.
Despite a few songs that do not work as well, Zimmer’s reworked score is still a highlight here, as he manages to emphasise and embellish his original pieces to create something familiar, but also different enough to feel fresh and revitalising, even if it doesn’t reach the monumental heights of the original. But is it fair to have expected it to? Probably not, but all in all it does a pretty good job at capturing the essence of The Lion King.
As for the vocal performances, the best come from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, JD McCrary as young Simba, Shahdi Wright-Joseph as young Nala, Billy Eichner as Timon, and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa. Ejiofor exudes a chilling menace that contrasts Jeremy Irons’s snarkier performance, but it works equally well. McCrary and Wright-Joseph are both very convincing as playful lion cubs, due to the energy and excitement they bring to their roles. McCrary also manages to nail the emotional performances that are needed from him, particularly after Mufasa’s death. Eichner and Rogen shine as Timon and Pumbaa, providing some of the best moments from the film; the two work fantastically as a comedy duo, and keep the spirit of the characters that Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella brought to life in 1994, whilst also establishing a contemporary style of humor of their own.
That said, Donald Glover as adult Simba and Beyoncé as adult Nala at times come across as stiff and stilted, as if they have been directed to be less emotional. This is in contrast to Matthew Broderick’s Simba, who seemed to have a heart and sensitivity to his voice which reflected the character’s troubled past and his personal growth, and Moira Kelly’s Nala, who also provided more emotion and heartfelt soul (though Beyoncé does get a bigger role, and the new material is where she most excels most in the role). James Earl Jones does return as Mufasa, but he doesn’t sound anywhere near as intense and emotional as in the original. His words were once booming and powerful, but now comes across as indifferent more than anything else, contributing to the feeling that this remake isn’t entirely necessary.
Not helping is the fact that while The Lion King is not a shot for shot remake, it is the closest possible thing to it. This is a shame, as some of the original material that is brand new in the film ( such as Scar’s jealousy of the relationship between Mufasa and Sarabi, or the strengthening of the female roles such as Nala, Sarabi, and Shenzi) is engaging and interesting. Unfortunately, none of the new material is elaborated enough to make a real difference.
Favreau made a brave decision when he accepted the task of remaking The Lion King, and it seems like a situation of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as the film is such a monumental classic that a huge amount of people (including myself) not only consider their favourite Disney film of all time, but also a significant part of their childhood. To even touch a film that is so admired immediately puts you into dangerous territory. It is unclear how much freedom Favreau and his team had with the remake due to being under the thumb of Disney, but whilst the decision to go photo-realistic provides some of the best visuals in any film to date, it also means that a good portion of the heart and soul from the 1994 version is quashed beneath the technology.
The Lion King will probably cement its place in cinema history due to its technological achievements, and this is deservedly so. However, despite its best efforts to once again capture the magic of the 1994 original, The Lion King remake sinks under the pressure of its revered source material, and suffers from a case of style over substance.