Once again we’ve got another one of the remakes of Disney’s animated classics, but this one I was looking forward to more than Aladdin or Dumbo. The voice cast, on paper, were great choices for the characters, the CG in the trailers looked incredible and it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who directed what is still the best one of these remakes with his version of The Jungle Book (I’m not counting Pete’s Dragon since the original was live action). However, this is an instance where the form used to tell the story doesn’t really work.
The film follows Simba, the prince of the Pride Lands, being trained on becoming the King by his father Mufasa. However, Mufasa’s brother, Scar, covets the throne for himself so he schemes to get Simba and Mufasa out of the way so he can take the throne. After his scheme works, Simba runs away and becomes friends with Timon and Pumbaa, two outcasts who convince him to forget about the past and enjoy a more hedonistic life. With Scar’s rule being a disaster though, Simba’s old friend Nala comes to convince Simba that he needs to take his place as the rightful king. Now the film covers the main story beats from the original film, but there are a lot of little things cut out of this version that serve to weaken the overall story. Some of these are more personal gripes such as all but one verse of Be Prepared (the best song in the original film) being cut out, but the big one is that Simba’s main character arc of learning from the past has key moments cut out of it, ultimately making it so the film doesn’t have the emotionally satisfaction of the original film. There’s even one point where a big deal is made of Rafiki getting out his staff again, but we haven’t seen him use it before, it’s weird cuts from the film that just harm the overall flow of the story. There’s also an issue with the tone of the film, I’ll get into one of the issues later on but the overall style of the film doesn’t fit with the story of The Lion King. The film is designed to be darker and more realistic, but this doesn’t mesh with the more stylistic moments of the story, in particular the music numbers. Whenever a music number starts it feels out of place with the tone of the film and the film probably would have been better if it was not a musical.
There’s also an issue with the character animation in terms of the photorealism working against the film. In the original film there was a strong element of anthropomorphism which enabled the characters to have recognisable emotions just through the animation. Here though, by going for realistic animals, the inherent issues in animals not having the same capacity to emote as humans is an issue, not helped by some of the lions looking fairly similar with there being one point where I didn’t know whether the character we were seeing was Nala or Sarabi. The realism also harms one of the emotional peaks of the film, Simba seeing Mufasa in the clouds, as Mufasa isn’t in the clouds talking to Simba, it’s just some clouds that vaguely resemble Mufasa.
Because of the limitations in the animation, the voice acting has to do the heavy lifting in selling the emotions of the character and the film does work in this regard. Donald Glover is a great Simba, showing off the carefree attitude of the character along with his feelings of guilt and regret over his actions when he was younger. JD McCrary as the younger Simba is also great, having a great singing voice for I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and selling the innocence and childish nature of Simba. Beyonce as Nala is pretty good, the power in her voice being great for this version of Can You Feel The Love Tonight and having great chemistry with Glover, along with selling her desire to stop Scar and fix her home. Shahadi Wright Joseph as the younger Nala is also great, working well with McCrary and showing her mix of caution and energy. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar was, for me, one of the highlights, having the right level of menace for the character and, whilst not as entertaining as Jeremy Irons, is a strong version of Scar. Florence Kasumba, Keegan Michael-Key and Eric Andre as the hyenas are fun in their roles and John Kani is an excellent Rafiki, bringing this sense of age and wisdom to the character and I thought the decision to have a lot of his dialogue in Xhosa to be the best creative choice in the film. The comedic characters though I found to be the highlight of the film. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa are a lot of fun, getting frequent laughs from me and having a great chemistry with each other that sells their friendship and John Oliver as Zazu is, well, exactly what you expect when you imagine John Oliver as Zazu. I was a bit disappointed with James Earl Jones as Mufasa though. He’s still able to bring the regal and powerful element of Mufasa across, but the emotion for the character isn’t as strong here as it was in the original.
On the technical side, I can’t deny that the CG used to create the characters is incredible. CG has reached a point of photorealism that makes it almost indistinguishable from real life, both in terms of the designs of the characters and the backgrounds used in the film. There are points where it looks like real backgrounds were filmed and the animals CG’d in later on, which is a testament to the talent of the CG artists. I also think, on paper, the style of the film is pretty interesting, going for more of a David Attenborough vibe which has the potential to be used to great effect in future films. However, this style doesn’t mesh with the stylistic elements inherent to The Lion King, particularly with the musical numbers. The original film was very vibrant in the musical numbers, the animation and the music working brilliantly together to shows us the full personalities of the characters. Here though, with the photoreal animals not having the same ability to emote as the hand-drawn versions and the more realistic cinematography, the musical numbers have no life to them and what should be vibrant, entertaining scenes end up being pretty dull. The songs themselves are still great and the cast perform them well, and I loved hearing He Lives In You in a mix of Zulu, Swahili and Xhosa through a cinema sound system, but their incorporation in the film didn’t work.
Overall, The Lion King is a disappointment. The CG and voice cast are excellent, but it makes too many changes that detract from the story and the style is too realistic for its own good. As a technical exercise the film works wonders, but as a film overall, it is a disappointment.
My Rating: 2.5/5