Young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary) looks up to his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and is eager to prove he can make his father proud when he becomes king. However, Simba’s uncle and Mufasa’s own brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has his own greedy ambitions for the throne and Simba’s nativity might help him succeed. Pride Rock is soon shaken with betrayal and tragedy that ultimately results in Simba’s being exiled. Years later, an older Simba (Donald Glover) must come to terms with his past and take his rightful place as King before Pride Rock and the kingdom are ravaged beyond repair.
The Disney animated classic remake machine is one that makes me curious, it also terrifies me and makes me question where Disney’s originality went.
The 2019 version of The Lion King is undoubtedly the highest profile remake they’ve done yet. It’s the latest in the line of iconic Disney animations that the media juggernaut has wheeled off the conveyor belt. We’ve had Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and The Beast, Dumbo and most recently Aladdin. Not forgetting waiting in the wings that coming to a cinema near you soon is Mulan and the newly announced Little Mermaid.
It’s a new movie line that on one hand can help breathe new life in Disney’s less successful and lesser known titles, say Atlantis, Treasure Planet or even Black Cauldron for example. If that’s was just the core idea behind Disney’s movie direction, then I would be 100% on board. It’s an attempt to make something work that didn’t hit the target first time around. Also understandably to a degree, some of their earlier live action adaptations like Cinderella (1951) and Dumbo (1943) make sense because of the age of the source material. And let’s not forget a chance to correct some of the problematic elements of their films; case and point Dumbo’s unmistakable racist tones.
But when you’re returning to a property that is so fondly loved, remembered and an absolute diamond in Disney’s animation crown, that’s when the alarm bells go off. I’ve never thought there was a reason to remake The Lion King. You can look at the original’s box office history and 2011 re-release to see that the film always draws a crowd among Disney fans. There’s also a sense of generational passing of this title. People who saw it as children, now adults, sharing this wonderful animation to their children and thus, pun intended, the circle of life for the film continues.
So it begs the question, in The Lion’s King’s case, why on earth are we retreading something that is already critically acclaimed, loved by audiences worldwide and cemented in film history? First and foremost, the likely reason is box office cash. The 2019’s rampant box office debut at the cinema clearly shows that The Lion King equals money and having a talented director like Jon Favreau in charge, technology pushing visual effects and popular stars like Donald Glover and Beyoncé involved boost the profile and the appeal. Regardless of what critics and reviewers, such as myself think, The Lion King is destined to keep bringing audiences back – whatever the form.
However, this still doesn’t hide the fact that this is Disney themselves remaking their own successful properties and it doesn’t feel right. Like I stated earlier, I didn’t see a need for this but here we are. It feels odd and it feels silly. Shift franchises for a moment. Imagine, in the next ten years, Warner Brothers decided that after Fantastic Beasts was all said and done, they’d go and remake Harry Potter again? Silly isn’t it but it’s possibly plausible if they look to Disney as the box office trend setters. The serious problem with their remake obsession is that they haven’t released anything original for an alarming while. Aside from sequels for Wreck-it-Ralph and Frozen, when is the next original Walt Disney Animation or family movie coming from Disney that doesn’t originate from its parks, Pixar, Marvel or Star Wars?
However polished or entertaining this 2019 version can be at times, there lies the fundamental problem with revisiting Disney’s classics in this way. It’s robbing Disney of their charm for being story originators. Now, if it this version had something truly amazing on the same levels as the original, I probably wouldn’t have gone too much into this thought process. I genuinely wanted to enjoy this.
Sadly, The Lion King 2019, for all its nostalgia tripping intentions, comes across as a soulless empty husk of a film.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything positive about it. The visuals for one are wonderful. It’s undeniably impressive and seriously jaw-dropping at times. It skill of the technology on show gives all the animals in this kingdom an incredibly lifelike appearance. You can get lost in it to a degree you’re expecting David Attenborough to start narrating. However, even with a very competent voice cast of impressive names involved, the usual flaw of all CGI animation starts to creep in – emotion.
Yes, these animals are incredible to behold on a big screen but you don’t always see the emotion of the dialogue in their facial expressions. It’s frustrating when you have a stellar character actor like Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering Scar’s lines menacingly but it doesn’t match up with the physical and facial emotion of the character. This is something that plagues a number of characters in this version. There are some characters whose voice work helps with proceedings like Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumbaa but ultimately the mesh of the new voice cast and these incredible visuals feels like it’s missing its spark.
The missing spark is the overbearing issue with this version. For everything it brings from the original, the two key ingredients it has somehow left back in 1994 is the original’s charm or soul. Look at the 2019 soundtrack, all the favourites get a new lease of life but only a few, Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel The Love Tonight, feel right in this version. Other classics like Can’t Wait To Be King don’t fire that jolt of energy the original animation and staging created. Personally, I’m still fuming about the spoken word hacked to pieces version of Be Prepared. When a Disney movie famous for its crowd pleasing songs aren’t so pleasing, it puts a damper on things.
Even iconic scenes, like the aftermath of The Stampede and Remember Me didn’t pack the emotional punch that they should do which is a shame. However, some of the other iconic scenes seemed to continue to resonate with audiences. Most noticeably, the Circle of Life, when baby Simba is lifted up the audience members shared the moment by lifting their drinks cup into the air as well. An entertaining moment but I can’t help that it was done more as a gesture of love to The Lion King as a whole than this movie.
Ultimately, that’s likely where The Lion King’s box office success is going to come from. Non-fussed fans will just be happy that The Lion King has returned. Also, chances are this film will form new audiences that may eventually stumble upon the animated version. If you love The Lion King, go, see it and make your own mind up. If you enjoy it, that’s fine. There isn’t anything wrong with enjoying this version. It is a faithful retelling of the original and people will react in their own way to how Disney retells the story.
My reaction is a worrisome one as I feel Disney has self-inflicted damage on an iconic film that didn’t have anything wrong with it in the first place. All in the pursuit of that sweet box office cash.
Seriously, when is there something original from Disney coming?
The Lion King (2019) is at cinemas nationwide now.