Disney's The Lion King remake is a critical failure, but why is that the case when The Jungle Book succeeded? Although The Lion King 2019 has proved to be a hit at the box-office, with over $700 million and counting, it's become the sixth live-action Disney remake to be certified Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, with a critics score of just 52%.
By contrast, 2016's The Jungle Book remake was also a box-office success, pulling in $966.6 million, but it was acclaimed by critics too, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%. This isn't the only Disney live-action remake to be critically approved - Beauty and the Beast was mostly well-liked too, in addition to a massive box-office haul - but it's the similarities between The Lion King and The Jungle Book that make the difference in execution and response so startling.
Both The Lion King and The Jungle Book remakes are directed by Jon Favreau, and both have used the same groundbreaking CGI technology to make photorealistic animals to populate their respective settings. Both take on beloved Disney classics with the exact same approach, so why are the outcomes so different?
The Jungle Book Is An Easier Movie To Remake Than The Lion King
The original version of The Jungle Book is rightly beloved as an animated classic and a childhood favorite of most Disney fans, but it's also easier to remake than The Lion King. For starters, although 1967's The Jungle Book is very good, it's not on par with The Lion King, which is one of, if not the greatest animated movies ever made. That simple fact alone put slightly less pressure on 2016's The Jungle Book, and also gave Favreau more to play with.
The original The Jungle Book is pretty old too, having been released in the 1960s. Not that it looks bad, per se, but there's definitely a stronger argument for it to be remade and updated with new technology. By comparison, The Lion King is relatively young at just 25-years-old, but what's more is that most of Disney's hand-drawn 2D animation used here hasn't really aged. The film still looks and feels great even now.
The Lion King remake also had trouble with the fact that the original's story is incredibly tight and, well, perfect. It does everything it needs to within just 88 minutes, which makes it harder to justify a remake that isn't simply shot-for-shot, because there's not a huge deal to add in. The Jungle Book's storyline is very episodic, moving from the wolves to Baloo to King Louie to Kaa and so on, which made it easier for Favreau to change things up and weave the story together in a more connected way. That's something he couldn't do with The Lion King.
The Lion King Struggled With Expanding The Story
The Lion King remake is 29 minutes longer than the original, and upon leaving the cinema you might well be wondering just why that is. Some of this is just a simple expansion of certain sequences, but it does try and make some additions too. The hyenas are given a bigger, more active role in proceedings, while Sarabi and above all else Nala have their parts expanded, such as seeing Nala leave Pride Rock to go find help. Some of this comes from The Lion King stage musical, and while it's mostly fine it doesn't really add a great deal to the story. As mentioned, it's already incredibly tight, so there's very little room for expansion here, meaning the majority of changes end up feeling like filler.
The Jungle Book remake didn't have this problem, and not just because of the episodic nature of the original. That certainly helped, but what's more important is that Favreau had source material beyond the Disney animation to pull from, returning to the original works of Rudyard Kipling. 2016's The Jungle Book pulls from both the animated classic and Kipling's text, with the latter including an expanded role for Mowgli's adoptive mother, Rashka, and his relationship with the other wolves as a whole. Shere Khan is more battle-scarred and has a bigger role; the elephants are more respected, rather than comedic; and there's a much darker tone that hues closer to the books and moves it away from the original The Jungle Book, allowing the remake to stand apart and be its own thing.
Both Movies Struggled With The Songs - But The Lion King More
One of the big issues facing the remakes of both The Jungle Book and The Lion King is that they're based on animated musicals, which presents a couple of issues. Firstly, the songs in each are rightly adored and revered by fans; they're tunes so many people grew up with and know by heart, so you've got to be respectful to that. Secondly, the photorealism makes it harder to incorporate the music, since it's harder to make a supposedly real animal look as though it's singing.
The Jungle Book's answer to this is try cut out most of the songs all together, or at least strip them right back. We do still get some renditions of classics like "Bare Necessities", but it's pared-down, and then there's one of its biggest musical moments: "I Wanna Be Like You." This highlights the difficulty between changing the story, using new technology, and still keeping the original songs. In 2016's The Jungle Book, King Louie goes from being a scat-catting orangutan to an imposing, somewhat terrifying Gigantopithecus, which means that when this supposed villain who is meant to be quite scary all of a sudden breaks into song, it's incredibly jarring. The Jungle Book gets away with it though thanks to not having quite so many musical moments.
The Lion King 2019, on the other hand, does lean heavier into the music, which again isn't too surprising: as the original The Lion King is a better film, so too is its soundtrack, with at least 4-5 songs that rank as some of the best in any Disney film. It can't ignore the songs, not just because they're great but also because they're so ingrained in the story: "The Circle of Life" is key to the film's themes; "Hakuna Matata" underpins Simba's journey; "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" is a crucial turning point in him going back to Pride Rock.
At the same time, though, The Lion King can't go all-in on the songs because of its photorealistic approach, meaning it loses the fantastical element of the original. It works with some - "The Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" are both great - but "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" is stripped of its emotion, "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" is flatter, and "Be Prepared" is outright terrible. The latter especially is completely changed to fit this new take on the story, but it doesn't mesh at all, nor does it satisfy fans of the original. That sums up why The Lion King fails and The Jungle Book didn't, because it's caught between Pride Rock and a hard place; it wants to be faithful to the original, but also justify its existence, do something different, and expand, and in the end doesn't fully commit either way.
- The Lion King (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019
- Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) release date: Oct 18, 2019
- Mulan (2020) release date: Mar 27, 2020