Ah, what a fantastic film.
Released in 1994, The Lion King was viewed by Disney higher-ups as a side project, while they pooled their efforts into the now woefully-aged Pocahontas. Instead, it was this smaller endeavour that took the world by storm. The zenith of Disney’s Renaissance period, it is a masterpiece that boasts gorgeous animation and many visually stunning sequences, as well as an incredible score by Hans Zimmer (not to mention a plethora of instantly recognisable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, such as “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata”).
Anyway, modern Disney decided the wonder and magic of the original was actually a bad thing, so they made this soulless waste of time. After all, poor old Disney only has, what, about a third of the box office market share right now? They are in desperate need of some cash.
On paper, Jon Favreau’s copy-and-paste job should have been as great as the animated classic. After all, all the elements are in place: the story – where Simba must learn what it means to be king and reclaim what’s rightfully his – is the same; all the beats are there, so you know what to expect; that beloved soundtrack is here; and the characters you know and love are also present. So what exactly differentiates 2019’s The Lion King from 1994’s The Lion King?
Visuals, primarily, is what helped made the classic stand out, and what helps to break this version. Whereas The Lion King is dishing out expressive, visually arresting animation at every opportunity, Favreau’s Lion King is utterly boring to look at. Indeed, the CGI is impressive, maybe even revolutionary. Props to this film’s talented animators in making the Pride Lands and its inhabitants look so real. However, the end result is a different story.
In Favreau’s bid to make everything about this film realistic, characters are robbed of their expressiveness, to a detrimental degree. Personality is never shown physically, so the movie is wholly dependent on the voice acting to provide that. Unfortunately, as solid as this cast is, it’s simply too much heavy lifting for them here. The contrast between voices and a lack of appropriate body language is often jarring. There are times when Simba is supposed to be sad or feeling guilty, but because he has a real lion cub’s face that adheres to the rules of a real lion cub’s face, it looks like he’s smiling or otherwise indifferent to the situation. Zazu, despite being a stiff, posh, John Oliver-voiced individual, is the most emotive character present, simply because he does things with his eyes. However, at the same time, his voice comes from a bird beak that behaves exactly like a real bird beak does, so you’re not entirely convinced it’s his voice. You also have issues where characters of the same species look so similar, that you regularly confuse them. The worst example is when adult Nala is on screen with Sarabi, or any of the other lionesses. It doesn’t help when Simba embraces both of them in the same manner.
It’s not just character animation that takes a hit; environments and cinematography are similarly lacklustre. Gone is that romanticised African landscape and its striking, rich colours. Instead, everything looks washed out, and overly bright (because that’s real life, I guess). No artistic licence is permitted to properly differentiate settings or establish mood, either. Adult Simba mourns the land’s decay under Scar’s rule, but unlike the original which uses cold, dark greys to depict how barren and lifeless Scar’s world is, the palettes barely change, so there is no distinct contrast between his and Mufasa’s kingdoms. The elephant graveyard is no longer this eerie, alien landscape, for it is lit and coloured as if part of the Pride Lands. There are even times when animals blend into the background, because their colour perfectly matches that of their environment.
Those lively musical numbers, with vibrant imagery to spare, are no more. All the major songs are visually represented by the exact same action. After all, why have something that’s fun to watch, when your characters can just walk (or maybe run!) and talk throughout them? The playfulness of “Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, symbolising Simba’s childish, naïve glee about being next in line to the throne? Forget it; let’s just have the two, sandy-coloured cubs run from one sandy-coloured spot to the next sandy-coloured spot. What about “Hakuna Matata”, as Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba to mellow out and forget his problems? Better have them just walk and talk, and not worry about anything that might actually show an obvious change in Simba’s character. And why have “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” actually take place at night? Why not during broad daylight? (Also they bond solely through walking, and looking at each other with their plain, real-life lion faces.) Even “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, now identical to the Tokens’ version, is plagued by this laziness. I feel bad for the digital artists that worked on this movie. The amount of work they must have put into bringing the Pride Lands to life is overshadowed by their director preventing it from feeling alive.
Favreau’s placid reimagining completely falls apart thanks to how unadventurous it is, which only emphasises how lazy it is as a whole. Anything that is great – such as music and any genuinely decent imagery – is borrowed from the original, and any additions stand out like a sore thumb. This includes extra exposition through dialogue, to explain motives and backstory, which is not present in 1994’s Lion King. However, this is either because it’s clear through visuals and their actions what a character is all about, or because audiences do not need to be told why, for example, Scar has allied with the hyenas. But modern Disney demands these remakes are at least two hours long. Thus, every little detail is spoon fed to you, whether it actually adds anything or not.
I don’t think there’s been a Disney remake that so spectacularly misunderstands its source material, and what made it so special in the first place. I also don’t think there’s been a Disney remake that’s so unnecessary to watch. At least Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, as bad as it is, has Will Smith’s Genie as a selling point. This? Not so much. At present, you have two choices:
a) You can travel to the cinema, spend £10 or so on a ticket (maybe £30-£40 if you’re a family), sit through thirty minutes of adverts and trailers, and then hope you’re not distracted by restless kids that aren’t ready to sit still for such a long time, or by their restless parents who need to check Facebook every 15 minutes.
b) You can stay at home, and pop in the Lion King DVD that everyone owns by this point.
The difference is thirty minutes of runtime and no hit to your wallet. The original is also a joy to behold, unlike this one, which is both disappointing and frustrating. Clearly reliant on you being wooed by the music all over again, as if that was the only thing of note in the original, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is like some schoolkid copying a cool story they read for their English assignment, while failing to grasp exactly why it was cool.
Rating: Simba’s paw in Mufasa’s pawprint.