Movies & TV / Reviews

The Lion King Review

July 19, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
The Lion King Review  

Directed By: Jon Favreau
Written By: Jeff Nathanson
Runtime: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements

Donald Glover – Simba
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Scar
James Earl Jones – Mufasa
Beyonce Knowles-Carter – Nala
Alfre Woodard – Sarabi
John Oliver – Zazu
Seth Rogen – Pumbaa
Billy Eichner – Timon
John Kani – Rafiki
Florence Kasumba – Shenzi
Keegan-Michael Key – Kamari
Eric André – Azizi
JD McCrary – Young Simba
Shahadi Wright Joseph – Young Nala

From a business perspective, Walt Disney Studios remake of The Lion King, one of its most iconic animated features in history, was inevitable. Even the remake of Aladdin, starring Will Smith, has brought in close to $1 billion worldwide, despite its poor execution. Also, to call this new version of The Lion King a live-action film is a misnomer. Director Jon Favreau has pointed this out. The new movie is not a live-action film. None of it was created with any legitimate environments or cast members. To its detriment, the entire experience was created via computer. This is a CG-animated, photorealistic movie, but it’s still not a live-action movie.

The Lion King is not a shot-for-shot remake, so much as a near scene-for-scene remake. There are changes, new songs and additions to pad out the run time, since the original film ran only 88 minutes. The changes in the film come off as arbitrary. They don’t improve the experience much in any way or really add some sort of breakthrough new achievement.

For example, Favreau probably thought it was too awkward for Rafiki to be more like a shaman and walk around Pride Rock with a staff, even though it’s well documented that primates use tools in the wild. Strangely enough, Rafiki’s staff does inexplicably show up much later in the movie, when the production team made sure to avoid showing a photorealistic CG monkey, who is a shaman for a fictionalized version of the animal kingdom, using a staff for his work. If it’s unrealistic for Rafiki to have a staff as a shaman, why is it more realistic for Rafiki to have it stored away like the Sword of Grayskull, only to whip it out and use it like a practiced bow staff later in the film? It doesn’t make sense.

Another issue concerns the new film’s rendition of Scar’s song “Be Prepared,” which has been totally butchered in the new movie. It’s barely even a song or musical number anymore. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great talent, but he hardly even sings any of this number. He talks in rhyme through most of it, and then it’s over. And that’s how most of the 2019 Lion King feels. Certainly, some of the classic music holds up. The movie does have some nice photo-real eye candy and CGI wizardry, but it’s like a lion who has been hunted, butchered, stuffed and thrown up on display on a mantle piece in a hunter’s lodge. There is no inner life or soul to this film.

Yes, Favreau’s team and animators did manage to create some impressive, highly detailed sequences. Some of them look impressive, perhaps even beautiful. But what do $250 million, topnotch CG visuals truly mean if there’s no emotional connection to the story and characters onscreen? Great CG effects are not great CG effects if they take away from the emotional resonance of what the film attempts to depict. The film has close to no emotional resonance.

Nature documentaries on BBC evoke more emotions than the new Lion King, which is nothing more than a husk. There is no expressiveness on the faces of the characters. They speak, but their mouths barely move. Their faces have blank expressions. Most of their body language doesn’t even seem to resemble the genuine articles. This becomes a problem when Favreau and his production team are trying to adapt the same scenes from the original film but have the animal characters move and act more like real animals, since it is supposed to look “live-action.” From a visual standpoint, that style doesn’t work.

The Lion King creates a very awkward uncanny valley-like effect. The animators were not able to truly make living, breathing characters in a story. As a result, The Lion King loses any and all sense of immersion.

In terms of changes made to the film, it appears Favreau struggled with how to create a better atmosphere and lighting setups for the nighttime scenes. Many of the scenes that previously took place in dark or nighttime environments are brightly lit in the middle of the day. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” takes place with Simba and Nala romping around in brightly-lit daytime. Where’s that low-lit romantic ambiance? This is extended to the darker version of Pride Rock controlled by Scar. Even Scar’s perversion of Simba’s lush and vibrant homeland has lost a great deal of its dark menace.

The actors’ vocal performances certainly aren’t helped by the rather unremarkable attitude purveyed throughout the experience. Granted, most actors on these types of major animated productions do their work individually, rather than playing off of the other actors. But listening to the vocal performances of The Lion King, that’s exactly how the actors sound: as if they were all alone recording their lines in the booth. Specifically, Beyonce’s performance as the adult Nala has an unnatural stiffness. Her singing lines are definitely on point, but that’s about it. John Oliver as Zazu, Billy Eichner as Timon and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa definitely sound like they are trying to inject some humor, but there’s still an awkwardness in hearing their dialogue come from photo-real animals. It’s like they are talking but not really believing what they are saying. The effect is reminiscent of the Hollywood actors who were used to dub over the 2013 Walking With Dinosaurs film, with similarly awkward results.

A big part of that problem is because the physical character models have no life or visual expression. They can’t really develop those “expressive” reactions or features that are possible in a 2D animated version. The characters of The Lion King are missing a significant part of their performance. What the animators failed to achieve with the 2019 remake is proof of how crucial and important the animators of the Disney Renaissance were to those classic, iconic films. They created a significant part of the characters’ “acting” and physical performance. They made those flat, hand-drawn characters into living, breathing and indelible icons. The characters were brought to life onscreen in a vivid way.

The characters of The Lion King inspired and evoked just as much emotion in an audience as any live-action performance in history. When watching the story for the new film unfold, there’s no emotional connection between Simba, Mufasa, Timon, Pumbaa, Scar, Nala, Rafiki and Sarabi. There’s no chemistry. There’s no visual poetry. As such, those characters have no emotional connection with the audience either.

The final score: review Bad
The 411
Remaking The Lion King to look photorealistic was a major error. Favreau and his team clearly tried to make something of a breakthrough. However, making CG-animated film look photorealistic while keeping the music, scenes and dialogue from the original only serves to underscore the gap that still exists with photorealistic CGI. Is it possible kids and families might still be engaged with this? Yes. But why watch a bloated, lifeless, soulless piece of cinema when the classic, iconic original is still readily available? Hopefully, Disney will soon run out of iconic animated films to redo, and this phase will finally come to a merciful end.