Growing up, Walt Disney Animation Studios films were the backbone of my movie rotations. Mixed in with Batman features, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars, I watched classics and new releases until my VHS tapes wore out. When The Lion King (1994) released, it was the culmination of an incredible run for the animation studio. Along with Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Toy Story, The Lion King should be considered one of the greatest animated films in American cinema. The choice to remake the movie was obvious to Disney. After all, it was coming up on its 25th anniversary, it would be directed by the billion-dollar director Jon Favreau, and featured an all-star cast. It was money in the bank.
Sadly that is all The Lion King (2019) will be known for when it is all said in done. Despite some incredible visual effects work, The Lion King lacks the heart and soul of the original. Tepid recreations of show-stopping numbers meander their way throughout the film. The grandiose spectacle is noticeably absent. Perhaps worst of all, the emotional ties between the characters fall flat. With many sequences simply elongating sequences of efficient storytelling from the original, the 2019 version treads little new ground and forces itself to be placed against the original.
For those who have never seen The Lion King, the story follows the life of a young lion named Simba (voiced by JD McCrary and Donald Glover) growing up in the shadow of Pride Rock. As the son of the King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), heavy expectations await the young prince. However, when his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stages a coup, Simba believes he is guilty for the death of his father. He runs away from home, and begins a life in exile.
The story beats remain exactly the same in the Favreau version, and his team does an excellent job at building the photorealistic world. The actual visual effects are brilliantly crafted, completely immersing you on the Serengeti. However, as soon as a character is asked to speak, the issues begin to pile up. The creatures showcase little to no emotion, and perhaps worst of all, their eyes feel soulless. Despite every indication that you are watching real lions, your brain fights back because something is off. The unique physicality of characters like Scar or Ed the Hyena disappear, and instead we’re giving dozens of creatures that move and look like each other. In the effort to create a photorealistic world, Favreau and his team sacrificed unique characterization and the subtle connections that bring the characters together.
The real culprit here, perhaps more than any other department, comes from the sound. This may be paired with the visuals, but ultimately the vocals struggle to match up with the characters. Favreau realized that keeping the character speaking effects to a minimum helped in The Jungle Book, but in The Lion King, there are no live-action characters to focus on. Even when we see a character speaking, the inflections from the actors rarely matches up with what is being seen on screen.
The vocal ensemble cannot breathe enough life into their characters. Outside of Eichner and Rogen, the rest of the cast feels flat. The two comedians inject a syringe of energy and excitement straight into the heart, which helps the second half of the movie considerably. Meanwhile, Ejiofor seems to be the only person who adapts to this format of photorealism, but in the process removes the campy, mustache-twirling villainy that made Scar a definitive villain of 1990s American cinema.
Surprisingly, this iteration of The Lion King almost seems embarrassed by its musical roots. Outside of “The Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata,” each song feels like a KidzBop remake. Once again, Eichner saves “Hakuna Matata” from obscurity and even opens “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” with excellent vocals. It is a shame he can’t do more to help the movie.
Perhaps most damning evidence of weakness comes from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which takes place during the day. How a song performed by two of the biggest pop stars in the world could feel so boring is beyond me. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” takes away all the fun and excitement of the original and becomes a sing-a-long for a dozen baby animals. “Be Prepared” shows Scar sing-talking his way through a speech, again without any interesting visuals to accompany the lyrics. For songs with larger than life musical numbers, Favreau plays them as if no one really wants to hear them.
This miscalculation shines a light on the issue that make this movie an inferior copy of the original. The original Lion King was a Broadway extravaganza. It took all the tenets of a stage show and used animation to bring the impossible to life. Somehow, Julie Taymor later converted the show into an actual Broadway show that has become one of the most valuable pieces of media ever consumed. The Lion King has always been defined by the larger-than-life spectacle. It is campy and ridiculous, with characters traveling through valleys the size of the Grand Canyon and climbing a Pride Rock that feels like it is the size of the Empire State building. Yet when you watch Favreau’s The Lion King, grounding it in reality takes those very elements away. Even when things feel more daunting physically, we’ve lost the humor and fun that accompanied the story. Ultimately, this is the downfall of the 2019 edition, which chose to kill the surrealist, absurdist, wonderful elements of the original in order to push new technology.