Okay, this is a movie review with a difference. Because this review was written by two movie reviewers… who are married to each other… and who have very different opinions about many things, and agree on some things, but not The Lion King (2019).
So it’s a He said/She said review – and because She is taking the byline, we’ll start with He:
The Lion King is a classic. It’s timeless. Untouchable. Well, apparently it isn’t because they’ve gone and done it again. There’s a new Simba in town, and he’s a not-real/sort-of-real live action lion.
Woohoo. They’ve done it again! I loved the animated 1994 original, and I adored the stage musical, and what could possibly go wrong – unless they leave out one of the classic songs, or change the ending? [Clue: They didn’t.]
John Favreau is an amazing filmmaker. He helmed the first major Marvel Studios film, Ironman, and he made the live action-style remake of another Disney animated classic, The Jungle Book. Now he’s turned his live action vision to The Lion King, with…interesting…results.
I’m only an actor’s wife, not an actual actor, so I have a vague idea who John Favreau is (Tony Stark’s driver from Ironman). But to be honest, who cares? [Clue: Your kids certainly don’t.] The biggest drawcards for me are that Beyoncé plays Nala and John Oliver plays Zazu.
The film itself
So, if you haven’t seen the original, and in the interests of not spoiling anything: A little lion prince falls victim to his evil lion uncle and is tricked into believing that he’s done a terrible thing. He runs away until he comes back to defeat the evil uncle lion and win the day. Along the way he befriends some cute animals, eats some bugs, and falls in love with a girl lion from his past.
You’re a parent, right? So you’ve seen either the original or the musical or both, or you’ve read the books, or your kid once watched a trailer (16 times) on YouTube. Or you fell victim to one of those awful tie-ins, like The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. Come now. Let’s not pretend you don’t know what this story is about.
This is one of the areas in which I feel the remake falls far short of the original. The original cast – Mathew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert Guillaume – was pretty stellar.
And their ensemble performance was essentially perfect.
It’s a tough order to follow, and I’m not sure that the new cast – Donald Glover, Seth Rogan, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Billy Eichner, etc. – manage it. I’m not even sure that James Earl Jones is as good as Mufasa as he was in the animated original.
But there are exceptions. Chiwetel Ejiofor stands out as a wonderful Scar the evil uncle lion, John Kani is a magical (South African!) Rafiki the witch-doctor-baboon and Beyoncé is a surprisingly good best-friend-slash-future-wife Nala.
No ways, man! This voice cast is great. Except for Timon and Pumbaa (Eichner and Rogan), who aren’t half as funny as Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. Lovely kiddie-voice-artistry and singing, too, from JD McCrary.
Also: Beyoncé. I’ll just leave that there, shall I?
This is where things get interesting. You see, beginning with The Jungle Book, and now continuing with The Lion King, Favreau has set out to give the audience as close to a live action experience as possible.
He’s tried to create a computer-generated film that looks and feels REAL.
So the land, and the animals, and the wind, and the water, and everything looks like it’s… well …real. Almost.
And here lies the rub:
In depicting the characters as realistic animals, they lose the ability to express human emotion. Human communication is 93% non-verbal (body language, facial expressions, bearing, etc.). But in classic animated films the artists cheat by giving animal characters human-like expression, physical rhythm, and emotion.
So, in seeking perfectly realistic depictions of animals, Favreau has sort of shot himself in the foot, because I struggled to feel the characters’ emotions. Which made is hard for me to get into the film.
Jaaaaa… He’s right about that. I’ve got nothing. In some scenes, watching the CGI animals ‘emote’ was like watching Sandra Bullock try to use her forehead in Ocean’s 8: NOTHING. HAPPENS.
But it was kind of worth it for Beyoncé’s new song, “Spirit”, and some very clever and self-effacing lines of dialogue.
For kiddies, there’s this: Care. Commit. Be responsible. And don’t run away and eat bugs in foreign jungles with anarchist animal gangs.
There’s lots in here. But a big one, that’s not necessarily unique to this version, is ‘Why doesn’t the idea of “Hakuna matata” or “No worries” always work? Can anyone get through life without a little worry and conflict?’ [Clue: No.]
The bottom ‘lion’
The film is technically breath-taking. It’s visually amazing. It’s a work of art. But it’s also a bit… bleh.
I loved it. Your kids will love it. And I’m taking the actor’s daughter to see it.
It’s best for ages 7+ (there are some scary ish bits), so get tickets, gather your family and get to the movies.