I love The Lion King. It is my favourite Disney animated movie. It’s a masterpiece and I’ll fight anyone who wants to talk trash about it. There’s so much art and craft in it that I’m willing to bet often gets dismissed because its an 88-minute long hand drawn Disney flick. It is an amazing story with memorable characters, excellent direction, animation and cinematography, beautiful visuals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it (unless you want to discuss the problems of a monarchy, arranged weddings, a ruling class that literally eats its servants and stuff but please just shhh and let me enjoy what I like).
The biggest fear when remaking something so damn good is screwing it up. Bright side: They didn’t screw it up. Down side: I don’t think this one is better.
It was a bit of a difficult time titling this review. I didn’t want to say it was bad. I can’t really say it’s better. It is prettier, but it’s less imaginative as a result. It pretty much just is The Lion King remade with real* lions.
I can’t say for sure if that’s been the case in previous iterations of the Disney live action remakes. I’ve actually seen remarkably few animated Disney classics and even less of the modern live action remakes in recent years.
- The Jungle Book: saw live action, never the animated version
- Beauty and the Beast: never the animated, lasted about 20 minutes into the Emma Watson version
- Dumbo: didn’t see either
- Aladdin: see above
The biggest change is that this movie traded the fantasy elements of the original for realism in the portrayals, as if this could actually be happening or did happen over in Africa.
For every amazing visual of the landscape or close up on the animals or amazing tracking shots of the lions running that look straight out of a documentary, you lose some whimsy and fantasy that came with the musical numbers or interpretations of certain conversations. I was really hoping to see what director John Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel would come up with for those more fantastical scenes, but they kept it “realistic” throughout the film. It isn’t a bad choice, just a slight bummer.
One thing you really miss with the realistic animals is elements of character design. Scar in the animated is very wiry and thin; his claws are always out, vibrant green eyes, black mane and he almost has an “evil beard” in his mane.
Same goes Mufasa. In the original, while a lion, he’s shaped like a body builder and has a silhouette as if Superman was there. Big shoulders, chest out, glorious mane and a broad face similar to the square jaw you’d see on Batman or Captain America in a cartoon. Simba looks like a young boy animorphed into a lion. Same with Nala and Sarabi. They look feminine through their eyes and slight difference in head shape far more than the “real” lions in the movie. Timon doesn’t quite seem like the used car salesman as his mannerisms aren’t the same now that he’s an accurate meerkat.
It’s those elements of personification that allow for just that extra bit of connection and storytelling to the characters and thus the story. You might not have noticed those things, but your brain did. Simba looking like a boy makes you feel like he’s you as a kid or your son. The look of Mufasa really gives him the look of a protector and king. That little bit of a human look to the animals makes their actions and voice work feel more personal.
While that is lost, the look is still a treat as the designs are now more subtle. The photorealistc animals are great to look at and tell their story in a more subtle way. There is more emphasis on colour palette and using natural proportions to their physical best. The animals are adorable and imposing. Child Simba moving around on his little legs helps make him feel like he’s just that much more of a child.
The story is still excellent, and the few additional scenes and beats are improvements. The voice cast is great.
James Earl Jones is back as Mufasa and his performance is as strong as it was 25 years ago. Child Simba and Nala are great. Timon, Pumba, Zazu, and the Hyena’s are great. It’s a coin flip on who does a better job. I prefer Donald Glover’s adult Simba to Mathew Broderick’s. Beyonce isn’t quite as good as Nala as Moira Kelly.
The biggest change comes in the form of Scar. In the original, voiced by Jeremy Irons, the character is more of a conniving trickster and betrayer. A character not unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. He’s more cheeky and campy. He desires the throne and wants to scheme his way to the top. Every word was dripping in contempt for Simba and Mufasa.
While both are characters who have been passed over for not being “good” enough, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s is more terrifying. He really comes across as if he’s brooded on the shortcomings that have kept him from the throne far more than Irons’. You don’t really sympathize with him, possibly empathize as he’s less cartoonishly evil, but you get a bit more of a feel for how a life of being #2 when he believes he should be #1 has poisoned him.
Ejiofor is more menacing as Scar. He’s angry and hate-filled. There is a lot more raw power to his voice that comes across as hatred. He’s a far more evil character, and that makes the stakes feel higher in the darker moments of the film as he seems like a bigger threat. He truly covets power and seems as if his hunger will never be sated. You get more of a feeling that he has planned and made contingencies to protect him akin to James Spader’s Raymond Reddington. There’s more of an imposing danger to the modern version.
The movie doesn’t transform the source material, but I don’t know why you would want it to. The Lion King is a perfect movie. Call me a fool for supporting the laziness of Big Hollywood, but a visually refreshed version of this is all I wanted. It’s what I got. It’s what you’ll get.
I expect at some point, maybe 10 years from now, where this version is the definitive The Lion King for a whole new generation and that people will judge it more on its own merits. I just hope that this one doesn’t come to replace the 1994 version and a masterpiece is lost.
One question I’m left with though: why are the gazelles and giraffes and all them showing up at the baby shower? If my boss also ate me to stay alive there isn’t a chance in hell I’m showing up to watch him parade around his kid who will grow to be my boss by birthright and possibly eat me. Maybe I’m taking it all a bit literally.