A film review by Craig J. Koban July 28, 2019


2019, PG, 118 mins.


Donald Glover as Simba (voice)  /  Beyoncé Knowles as Nala (voice)  /  James Earl Jones as Mufasa (voice)  /  Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar (voice)  /  Alfre Woodard as Sarabi (voice)  /  John Oliver as Zazu (voice)  /  John Kani as Rafiki (voice)  /  Seth Rogen as Pumbaa (voice)  /  Billy Eichner as Timon (voice)  /  Eric André as Azizi (voice)  /  Florence Kasumba as Shenzi (voice)  /  Keegan Michael Key as Kamari (voice)  /  JD McCrary as Young Simba (voice)  /  Shahadi Wright Joseph as Young Nala (voice)  /  Amy Sedaris as (voice)

Directed by Jon Favreau  /  Written by Jeff Nathanson





I covet the original 1994 LION KING as highly as anybody.  Disney's 32nd and sumptuously 2D animated feature arguably represented the highest artistic and commercial plateau for the House of Mouse during that era (it came just four years into the company's new renaissance and ended up being the highest grossing film of its year and still remains the biggest money making 2D animated effort in existence).  

That's why it pains me to think of Disney remaking such a cherished and iconic classic, and THE LION KING is the studio's third attempt this year at retrofitting their animated film catalogue for modern consumption, coming off of severely problematic live action versions of DUMBO and ALADDIN from this year and 2017's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.   

It's hard not to be highly cynical going into this new LION KING (which, let's be clear, is not a live action remake as initially and falsely reported, but rather a photo realistic computer generated animated remake), mostly because it represents - alongside the studio's aggressive push to re-do so many of their beloved animated features - the exploitation of nostalgia and a built in ravenous fanbase for petty cash grabbing purposes.  These are Disney coffer padding films.  Still, I went into THE LION KING redux with the most open of mind and heart, primarily because of the man behind the camera in director Jon Favreau (who previously launched the entire MCU with the first IRON MAN film and, after that, made one of the better Disney live action remakes in THE JUNGLE BOOK).  Also, the technology involved to re-create the '94 original certainly looks awe-inspiring (more on that it a bit).  Regrettably, and like most of the previous live action remakes released within the last year, THE LION KING lacks warmth, heart, and the ethereal magic that made its predecessor such a revered trendsetter.   

If you saw the first LION KING then a plot synopsis of this latest iteration may prove redundant, especially considering that Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have copied the 2D animated film's storyline in most ways without straying away from it at all.  The narrative still has definitive echoes of Shakespeare's HAMLET and takes place in an African kingdom, seeing Mufasa (once again voiced by James Earl Jones) being the king of his lion tribe that is tricked and killed by his nefarious, throne hungry brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofer, replacing Jeremy Irons).  Assuming his deceased brother's place as ruler, Scar unsuccessfully tries to woe over Simba's wife, but is successful in pushing away Mufasa's son in Simba (voiced as an adult by Donald Glover, replacing Matthew Broderick), who is coerced into believing that he inadvertently murdered his father, leading to his long exile.  With the help of some new friends in a warthog (Seth Rogen) and a meerkat (Billy Eichner) and the coaxing of his old best friend from childhood in Nala (Beyonce), Simba realizes his true place in his father's kingdom and decides to confront his power seeking uncle once and for all. 



Let me start with the positives here: I engage in no hyperbole whatsoever in saying that - within a few short seconds of watching THE LION KING -  I was completely blown away by the technological masterpiece that was unfolding on screen.  Fleeing away from hand drawn animation, Favreau and his VFX team at The Moving Company have opted to employ truly cutting edge virtual reality tools and motion capture aids to painstakingly recreate this film inside a computer.  THE LION KING contains some of the most jaw droppingly authentic CGI that I've ever seen in a major feature film, with everything from the animals to their environments and the endless minutia of small life forms that surround them.  The sheer and limitless density of detail in the images is astounding, which gives this LION KING a startling sense of immediacy and realism of watching a nature doc about animals in the wild.  Up until the point when characters start exchanging dialogue, you'd swear that you're viewing location shot footage.  Favreau and the effects wizards here deserve supreme props for lovingly and meticulously crafting what's undoubtedly going to be considered a watershed work in the annals of movie history. 

There's a big and regrettable BUT that needs to be mentioned, though.  The bravura CG animation here is both a source of THE LION KING's greatest strength and its biggest weakness.  All of the animals presented on screen - whether it be lions or dung beetles - are all hyper realistic in their portrayal.  These digital creatures rarely look fake.  Such remarkable attention to conjuring up Simba and his pride to the most tangible levels possible starts to become a major issue every time these beasts talk, exchange dialogue, and sing.  Because these characters are photo real animals, they simply can't enunciate or express emotion in a dramatic way: their faces...simply can't.  This leads to a weirdly inverted uncanny valley effect of seeing steely eyed and expressionlessly blank faced animals trying to capture the essence of these characters like the mid-90's original.  All this negatively shows is that the stark simplicity, but visually gorgeous 2D hand drawn cells were infinitely better at showcasing the whirlwind of emotions of Simba and company during their character's troubling arcs.  Because these characters are unnervingly credible looking with soulless mugs, it really stunts the dramatic impact of the story.  THE LION KING - as a glossy two hour VFX demo reel - represents an utter embarrassment of visual riches that pushes tech boundaries in once inconceivable ways and invites you in to gaze at them with awe and wonder, but they also distracting push you away at a distance because of the perpetually blank faces of the animals present. 

That's not to say that the voice performers don't give it their all.  There collective work ranges from serviceable to good (standouts for me include Rogen's and John Oliver's spirited turns as their  warthog and hornbill doppelgangers respectively,  whereas other newcomers like Glover and Beyonce seem a bit blander in direct comparison).  I also appreciated Simba's mother (well voiced by Alfre Woodard) given more screentime in this version.  And a little bit of the bassy solemnity of a James Earl Jones can class up just about any problematic production.  But their collective voice performances are betrayed by technology that doesn't allow for the animal's faces to display any level of vivacious life.  One of the greatest central ironies of THE LION KING is that it's utilizing state of the art filmmaking tools that can't ever capture the very core essence of what made the hand animated LION KING so delightfully special in the first place.   

One last thing that needs to be mentioned as well is the fact that THE LION KING is a lazily slavish remake of the original, and in playing safe with the underlining material Favreau and company seem afraid of taking things in new direction.  In fact, a lion's share (no pun intended) of this film is a shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene, dialogue-for-dialogue, and beat for beat reworking of what's come before, right down to editing and shot compositions.  The new LION KING is pretty much exactly like the original, minus a few minor tweaks and a mournfully thirty minute longer runtime that does very little to embellish the core story in any sizeable way.  More often than not, I was unhealthily reminded of Gus Van Sant's completely wrongheaded remake of Hitchcock's PSYCHO from decades ago, which was also a shot for shot redo with a different cast.  A good remake, in my estimation, should pay faithful homage to the film that inspired it while also creatively carving out a refreshing new path to make itself stand proudly apart for a new generation of audiences.  Other Disney remakes have done this well, like Kenneth Branagh's CINDERELLA and the criminally underrated PETE'S DRAGON (one of the best remakes and family films of recent memory that frankly not enough have seen).  Those film's maintained familiar vibes while giving fresh new prerogatives on old stories.  THE LION KING does none of this.  It's a monumental triumph of visual effects ingenuity, but a failure as a remake. 

What depresses me the most about all of these Disney live action remakes is that they prey on their core fanbase's memories of the company's films of yesteryear and they're simply just engaging in going back to the well, so to speak, to deliver what audiences can already recognize and easily accept, thus ensuring huge box office gains.  When I think back to the glory days of the aforementioned Disney Renaissance between 1989 and 1999 and the stupendous outpouring of storytelling ambitiousness and artistic innovation that led to some of the greatest animated feature films the studio has ever made...I grow sad and disillusioned.  Disney was once a mythmaking powerhouse that unleashed one intrepidly daring and magical original to young and old audience members.  Those were the proverbial days.  Now - and, again, I always hate to constantly re-use this food analogy in these reviews - Disney seems more inclined to just offer up re-heated leftovers from previous five-star meals to today's families.  Somewhere along the line, the company's business and creative circle of life model got hopelessly skewed off course.  


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