Jon Favreau struck gold with his reimagining of Disney's classic The Jungle Book. Looking to re-live their success, Disney recruited him to tackle a hyper-realistic adaption of another animal classic: The Lion King. With this remake, Favreau implemented an even more evolved version of the technology used on Jungle Book, bringing the cartoon creatures to life in shocking realism.
With The Lion King's opening weekend come and gone, most have seen this realistic approach had as many pitfalls as upsides. While the effects are dazzling, a lackluster reception has met the film from the side of critics and some fans. Suffering from hollow narrative recreations, but bolstered by new performances, The Lion King (2019) is a mixed bag, to say the least.
10 Better: Its Revolutionary Visual Effects
Without a doubt, the visuals in this film are some of, if not the best, ever put to film. Every whisker is meticulously rendered, creating a world that feels viscerally alive. The original film was revolutionary in its animation techniques, bending anthropomorphic characteristics on realistic animals and utilizing CGI animation better than any Disney film before it.
This pseudo-live-action retelling aims to do the same, implementing a level of animated skill never seen before. There are sequences which demonstrate natural animalistic behavior as if this was an episode of Planet Earth (just with a lot more singing and regicide). If one thing comes out of this film, it will be its impact on visual effects for years to come.
9 Worse: The Implications Of Hyper-Realism
At the same time, translating an animated Disney film into highly realistic animation does not come without its pitfalls. Suspension of disbelief is inherent in animation, as audiences are hyper-aware that what they are seeing is not reality. When these lines blur though, certain behaviors actions can become highly unnerving.
When tragedy strikes, or when reality bleeds into the fantasy aspects, it is harder to feel invested. Sure, the animation is unlike anything ever seen. But watching a real lion cub mourn its father is more disturbing than heartbreaking. The implications of watching Scar feast on an antelope (or the Hyenas feasting on Scar) is crossing a line most parents will be concerned about.
8 Better: Shenzi And The Hyenas
The Hyenas in the original Lion King are classic Disney henchmen. Voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Disney alum Jim Cummings, the Hyenas added enough humor to the proceedings not to be too scary. That being said, it also stripped the characters of a lot of pathos and motivations. This reimagining gives the Hyenas a fresh new take on their humor and a much stronger characterization.
Shenzi in particular, voiced by Black Panther cast member Florence Kasumba, was a far more complex than she appeared in the original. Represented as the leader of the pack, she had far more vindication and hatred toward the lions than in the original, adding more pathos to her character. Kamari and Azizi, two new Hyena characters played respectfully by Keegan Michael Key and Eric Andre, brought their more modern and refreshing comedic sensibilities to the film.
7 Worse: Be Prepared
Chiwetel Ejiofor is an extremely accomplished actor both on the stage and screen. His work is always dedicated and nuanced. As Scar, he embraced a more subtle performance when compared to Jeremy Irons. While this choice is commendable considering Irons' legacy as the character, it still felt lacking in comparison.
The best example would be the half-hearted attempt at Scar's signature song: Be Prepared. While Iron's version embraced a campy yet sinister persona for this song, Ejiofor's did not commit to the singing aspect of the role. His half speaking recitation of the lyrics did not stick the landing.
6 Better: Cuteness Of The Animals
There is no denying the level of cuteness that this film achieves. Is that a measure of the film's overall quality? Obviously not. But this film is beyond adorable. In all honesty, most who leave might feel personally attacked by how cuddly some of these little creatures are.
Simba and Nala are the tiny puppy-like protagonists you can't help but cheer for. Watching the two run around the waterhole might cause you to scream, needing to cuddle these cubs immediately. But the cream of the crop, when it comes to cuteness at least, goes to the perfect, albeit brief, cameo of baby Pumbaa. While you never thought you needed to see a baby warthog, this film proves you most certainly did. Nothing as cute as that little pig should even be allowed in a movie.
5 Worse: Rafiki
Both a source of humor and spirit, Rafiki holds a very specific role in the events of The Lion King. Since he is such an essential element, serving the character in the appropriate way is quite the challenge. While the casting of Rafiki for the remake should have been a home run, the usage of this character was lacking if not detrimental to the overall movie.
John Kani is an exceptional actor and playwright, but Rafiki's role in this film was completely diminished, and Kani's portrayal was far too subtle. Rafiki is similar to Yoda or Gandalf in that he is able to find the humor while still being a source of wisdom. This Rafiki had nearly none of that necessary secret understanding. Apart from the humor, even his spirituality and mysticism was downplayed (which is an essential building block of this story). Not only was the character stripped back, but he was given worse dialogue and cornier scenes (the "Hello Old Friend" moment was ridiculous).
4 Better: Timon And Pumbaa
This might ruffle some feathers, but Timon and Pumbaa are arguably better in this remake than they even were in the original. While the visuals were outstanding, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen's performances were the single best part about The Lion King. Unlike every other performance in the film, these two comedians were allowed to craft an incredibly different take on the duo.
Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are the originals, and they will remain icons forever. But Eichner and Rogen brought such new life into the characters. The humor was adapted to be far more modern and existential, completely jabbing at the implication of their pedestrian lifestyles. Timon and Pumbaa deserve as much praise as audiences can give them.
3 Worse: Originality And Dedication To Nostalgia
While Billy and Seth took brand new routes with their characters, nearly every other performance and aspect of the film felt like a hollow recreation of the original. Instead of taking risks in adapting this story, Favreau and his team obviously felt compelled to barely risk adding new material or changing elements. This fear is understandable, as the original film is considered to be near perfect.
This version of The Lion King is nearly a shot for shot remake in the same vein as Gus Van Sant's Psycho. Almost every beat, line, and shot is taken straight from the original. Even the casting of James Earl Jones as Mufasa feels like a misstep. His voice, now the product of aging, is not as commanding as it had been before, resulting in a far less intimidating and powerful Mufasa.
2 Better: The Politics Of The Pridelands
While most of the film follows a direct recreation of the original, the runtime is still much longer. Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is a full half-hour longer than the original. Some of this is due to extended transitional sequences, for example when Simba's fluff of mane travels across the pride lands to Rafiki. In other ways, audiences were able to see the inner workings of the politics of the Pridelands in new ways.
While the original gave only a brief glimpse at Scar's rule, this film shows full sequences of Scar belittling, harassing, and assaulting his subjects. Nala's journey to escape is fully detailed as well. This gives far more weight to both her journey, as well as that of the lionesses and hyenas. It was a worthy expansion upon the original in regards to world-building.
1 Worse: The Emoting Of The Characters
The biggest issue with the Lion King remake goes back to a previous point about its animation. While the hyperrealism is dazzling, it is not conducive to anthropomorphized animal characters. Apart from the uncanniness it creates, it also strips these characters of any emotions. Zazu, for example, can only move his beak up and down, unlike his cartoon counterpart.
There are moments here and there when emotion is conveyed, but by translating the film into realism, most of the emotion comes from small examples of animal behavior. These are less characters and more like subjects of a documentary. This is not a compliment. Audiences go to Disney films to escape into fantasy. If they wanted to watch real animals act like real animals, they would hang out with Sir David Attenborough.