'The Lion King' Review: What's the Opposite of Hakuna Matata?

When telling a story involving talking animals, booming vocals from the afterlife, and farting warthogs, maybe photo-realism shouldn't be a goal.

The Lion King

It’s been said that no film is necessary, and while that’s technically true — outside of Broadcast News (1987) and Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), obviously — it shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of art. Movies, like books and music and paintings, don’t keep us alive as much as they contribute several more reasons that make life worth living. The best films push and pull us emotionally while even good ones manage to entertain and thrill through our laughter, tears, and clenched fists. The defense grows a bit tenuous, though, when it comes to remakes.

Change too much, and viewers wonder why you didn’t just make your own damn movie. Change too little, and they’re left wondering why make the movie at all. 2019’s The Lion King falls into that second camp with the answer to the “why” question being a single character — $. Okay, to be fair, it’ll most likely end up earning over a billion $ at the box-office, but while that’s as good a reason as any for Disney to remake one of their own classics it’s no motivation for audiences to actually see it. Even with an additional thirty minutes of padding this is a near Gus Van Sant’s Psycho-level carbon copy with cutting edge CG replacing the original’s hand-drawn animation and some fun new jokes added to distract from the still-antiquated celebration of royal rule, bloodlines, and sexism.

That said? Part of being a copy means it’s still The Lion King and still the same Shakespeare-inspired story — an engaging coming-of-age tale about honor, deception, responsibility, murder, and friendship. Your favorite songs remain, albeit less playful in their execution. Sidekicks still entertain, but with less expressiveness and personality. And there are enough entertaining beats to keep butts in seats and smiles on faces. Or, you know, you can satisfy those same butts and smiles even better in less time and for less money by re-watching or introducing them to the original, but I’m not here to make your weekend plans for you.

As a refresher, Mufasa (voiced by a returning James Earl Jones) is the king of the Pride Lands, a vast swath of the African landscape filled with all manner of flora and fauna. Hyenas live outside his rule by choice, but all other creatures give their fealty to the king. The birth of his son Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as a grown lion) marks the little guy as next in the line of succession, and that irritates Mufasa’s already cantankerous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The cub’s uncle makes a play for power that results in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s self-imposed banishment from the kingdom, but outside of its reach the cub makes new friends in Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) and Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) who teach him to take things a bit less seriously (and to stop eating other mammals). He grows to learn that Scar and the hyenas have ravaged the Pride Lands, and while it takes some convincing, Simba eventually decides he needs to return as the rightful king.

The Lion King (2019) isn’t a bad film, but it really and truly risks a justification of the label “unnecessary.” You hope a child would watch the 1994 original first as the hand-drawn animation is bright, eye-catching, and imbued with personality and life. These aren’t real lions, hyenas, birds, and such; they’re characters telling a story that people can relate to, and to that end they succeed as “living” beings. The remake looks undeniably impressive on the technical front — the digital improvements over the still-stunning Planet of the Apes trilogy (2011-2017) are wild — but it lacks the vibrancy and vitality of its ancestor. Crafting an animal’s face with intense accuracy leaves little room for true emotiveness and expression leaving scenes of pure joy and sadness somewhat unreachable, but the issue goes beyond just the CG limitations.

Director Jon Favreau‘s (The Jungle Book, 2016) quest for realism — a head-scratcher as the animals are talking, singing, and giving a shit about a royal birth in some other species — has left the creatures’ behavior feeling more restricted as well. The original’s animation and tone left room for visual playfulness and cartoon fantasy, but here there’s a stiffness to their movement at times and an unwillingness to play in ways beyond what’s been captured on film by the Discovery Channel. They look and act real, but somewhat ironically, these characters feel less so because of it.

Performance-wise, the standouts are the supporting players. Eichner and Rogen deliver the majority of the film’s laughs and energy, while Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, and John Oliver carry their own weight as two bickering hyenas and a loyal toucan, respectively. They’re where the most notable dialogue/joke changes are, and the result is some fresh laughs and smiles. Less effective are the leads, Glover and Beyoncé (as Simba’s best friend and betrothed Nala), as the former feels continually flat in his delivery while the latter seems at times to be playing Nala too big. Both are small letdowns in a far bigger pool of underwhelming execution, though. The songs are mostly the same, thankfully, and while the on-screen action accompanying them leans towards the meh side of things the vocals themselves still deliver wit and melody.

Again, The Lion King isn’t a bad film, but it offers up no compelling reason to go out of your way to see it when the original is still available. (Granted, Disney has done a bang-up job cutting back on the original’s accessibility leading up to the remake.) There’s some entertainment here and enough of a wow factor in the visuals to seem impressive, but it comes at a noticeable cost to the viewing experience. Congrats to Disney executives I guess, but for the rest of us? It’s fine.

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