'The Lion King' (2019) Review: Still a Mighty Roar, but Never Quite Soars

Disney's inevitable remake of the 1994 classic is a majestic stunner, but it lacks the playfulness of the animated original.

The best thing about Disney’s The Lion King remake is that, with the addition of a massive technical leap, it’s the same classic movie you saw 25 years ago. The worst thing is that, aside from a massive technical leap, it’s the same movie you saw 25 years ago.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney’s 2019 Q3 fiscal quarter: The Lion King, a near identical recreation of the landmark 1994 animated film down to specific camera movements and Hans Zimmer orchestral cues, is still a majestic adventure about a young cub’s growth into king of Pride Rock.

But its stunning photorealism, a staple for Disney’s ongoing remakes mixed with the aesthetic of a BBC Planet Earth, slowly becomes its own undoing, keeping the film from roaring like the original.

In theaters July 19, The Lion King, from director Jon Favreau (his second live-action feature with CGI animals after 2016’s The Jungle Book) and writer Jeff Nathanson retells the story of Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover), an overambitious royal cub heir of Pride Rock. Played a pawn by his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take the throne from his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones), Simba grows up in exile under the tutelage of Timone (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) before returning home to save Pride Rock with the help of his childhood friend, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles-Carter).

'The Lion King' (2019) is a stunning if hollow remake of the 1994 original. Despite breathtaking technical fidelity, it's virtually the same film with limiting photorealism.

Walt Disney Pictures

Everything great about The Lion King can be attributed to the original; it is still a thunderous Shakespearean drama punctuated by all-time Elton John bangers. Seriously, whatever you’ll love about The Lion King is what you loved from 1994, save for the omission of iconic jokes and a severe injustice towards “Be Prepared.” (As somebody who still quotes “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the pahst,” I find its absence bizarre considering everything else the film bothers to echo.)

What I imagine most audiences are really looking forward to see — realistic animals acting out a movie they know and love — is a well that almost runs dry by the time the credits roll. There is no denying the raw spectacle of this remake; you can almost touch the fur and rough skin of every character onscreen. Cat fans especially will have a ball gawking at young Simba and Nala, who out cute every cat on YouTube. Despite looking “live-action,” every frame has more polygons and rendering than the newest Call of Duty, yet it doesn’t really show. You can’t tell.

But technical prowess wasn’t the original movie’s only strong suit. It was its expressionistic visual storytelling that conveyed emotion. The remake sacrifices this key element, most especially in what should be its show-stopping musical numbers, and its to a severe detriment. In both “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata,” instead of playing within the frame performing gags, the characters just walk around mouthing the words. It’s beautiful if you find the fidelity of the animals beautiful. Otherwise, the energy ain’t there.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Scar" brings less flamboyance to the role than Jeremy Irons. 

Walt Disney Pictures

Also gone are mood colors of hot reds, evil greens, and sharp blues that illuminated the original. In place are varying shades of brown and gray with only the shining African sun providing a different spectrum. Even the animals lack color. No, lions aren’t actually yellow and red, and that’s the point. This is cinema, not National Geographic.

At least the voice acting mostly rules. With an ensemble that includes a gut-busting John Oliver, a revelatory Beyoncé, and a killer duo in Rogen and Eichner (who can SING, y’all) the new Lion King’s cast just about owns the original with the added insult of James Earl Jones literally repeating his lines. It’s quite something that the impeccable talents of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who first gave life to Timone and Pumbaa, have been eclipsed by the guys from Knocked Up and Billy on the Street. Should Beyoncé retire from music, she’d have an incredible second career in anime.

Really, the cast is great… except for Ejiofor’s Scar. While competently evil, Ejiofor lacks the flamboyant, queer energy Jeremy Irons memorably brought to the role. It’s here where Lion King also takes a rare diversion from the original and still loses. “Be Prepared,” again zapped of color and sonically the worst of Zimmer’s habits, is utterly devoid of character. It’s also less than a minute long and practically ends before you realize it’s begun. What a waste.

Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and Simba (Donald Glover) in 'The Lion King' (2019).

Walt Disney Pictures

There’s only one thing you need to know about The Lion King and it’s that Disney wants a billion dollars. It just made a movie that might guarantee that payday. It hits all the nostalgic beats with breathtaking realism and visual wonder, but at the cost of imagination and playfulness of synchronized zebras, marching hyenas, and hula dancing meekrats.

But today’s children will undoubtedly fall in love with what we all fell in love with in 1994. The harsh truth is that kids don’t care that Disney is remaking its own library for market reasons. All they’re going to know is a beautiful movie with wonderful, albeit stiff characters who will fire up their imagination for years to come. That’s just the circle of life.

Disney’s The Lion King will be released in theaters on July 19.

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