Disney's remake of The Lion King is the clear ruler of the box office this weekend, but why are the reviews so mixed? Directed by Jon Favreau (who previously helmed the live-action remake of The Jungle Book), The Lion King is "live-action" in the sense that the lions have been made to look photo-realistic - but many reviewers feel that the original's 2D animation offered more scope for emotion and creativity.
The only returning cast member from the original Lion King is James Earl Jones, the inimitable voice of Simba's father, Mufasa. Simba himself is voiced by JD McCrary as a cub and Donald Glover as an adult. The Lion King's voice cast includes plenty of other big names, including Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and John Oliver. The Lion King also has a formidable budget of $250 million, and has already recouped that in ticket sales worldwide. Needless to say, the Disney formula of remaking nostalgia classics is continuing to pay off.
The Lion King 2019 currently holds a score of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the sixth Disney live-action remake to receive a "rotten" score. Favreau's film was always going to face an uphill struggle of living up to the legacy of the original Lion King, considered by many to be the best Disney animated film ever made. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the 1994 version of The Lion King won two Oscars and two Golden Globes, and came close to grossing a billion dollars worldwide (which was a lot rarer in the '90s than it is today). The remake features new versions of classic songs like "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" - but these critics weren't feeling the love.
"The move to live-action becomes a net loss... There are few, if any, improvements over the original, and there are a number of ways in which it’s worse. The transformation of Hakuna Matata from a mantra for carefree living to an expression of nihilist despair is one example. The muddying of Scar’s relation to the hyenas is another."
"Everything money can buy... has been poured into Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic retake on The Lion King... What’s missing? Let’s start with intangibles such as heart, soul and the faintest hint of originality... There’s barely a second in this new Lion King that doesn’t reveal what it truly is: a business proposition that uses familiarity as its life raft. Is it technically impressive? You bet. But without the animating spark of life, the story falls flat. There’s no magic in it."
"This soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail... The animation is just bland in a way that saps the characters of their personalities. Scar used to be a Shakespearian villain brimming with catty rage and closeted frustration; now, he’s just a lion who sounds like Chiwetel Ejiofor."
"Telling this story in extreme visual detail sometimes does it no favors: The characters are arch, but most of them now lack the expressive body language and sympathetic facial movements needed to sell their performances. They just stand there and deliver their lines with relatively blank expressions, relying on the human actors to add inflection, like levity or menace."
"I've never been the biggest fan of the original Lion King, which beneath its brightly entertaining surface has always struck me as too emotionally calculated by half. But that film feels like a triumph of form and content next to this movie, because its story about a fictional animal kingdom feels so vividly and gloriously cartoonish in every detail. The new Lion King is so realistic-looking that, paradoxically, you can't believe a moment of it."
The general consensus among critics is that the technological marvels of The Lion King end up being a hindrance to its story and emotional weight, since the need to keep its characters looking realistic precludes them from being too expressive. They're also limited to behaving like real animals, which means there's no Busby Berkeley-style madness during "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," and Timon, Pumbaa and Simba don't swing from a vine and dive into a pool during "Hakuna Matata." Timon doesn't even dress in drag and do the hula. Despite this, some reviewers were won over by Favreau's remake of The Lion King.
"It’s impossible to deny the film’s appeal. Those who have never seen the 1994 The Lion King will “ooh” and “aah” at the cute animals and shrink away from the nasty ones. Those who have seen the 1994 version may be overtaken by nostalgia and sentiment... Calling it a “worthy successor” would be a stretch. Better instead to call it a reason to visit theaters at a time when such “reasons” are becoming increasingly few and far between."
"There’s something about this Lion King, which, like the original, has its narrative roots in Hamlet, that feels so much more Shakespearean and — there’s no other word for it — so much more tragic than the 1994 feature-length animation, in which the story’s darker themes were subliminal, not center stage. Here, the death of a beloved character, one whose fur looks so real you could pet it, is that much harder to take."
"This movie is nearly a carbon copy of the original film, but that doesn’t make it any less delightful. The musical numbers are mostly outstanding, especially Beyoncé and Donald Glover’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Also, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who voice Timon and Pumbaa respectively are an actual riot. As a pair, they carried a majority of the humor in the movie, adding a bit of 21st-century flair into the mix while staying true to the original dialogue."
Even among the positive reviews of The Lion King there are few raves, with most critics who gave it an overall "fresh" rating admitting that it just about passes muster. Still, at the very least the remake of The Lion King has given us a very expensive cover album of songs from the original movie featuring Beyoncé and Childish Gambino. That alone makes it worth the effort.