Starring Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones
2 STARS (out of 5)
That’s a rating I wasn’t expecting to give this movie, but hear me out. It’s not as a result of Disney remake fatigue, and it’s certainly not because it’s badly made. Far from it. The Lion King remake is a fairly unique case for me to review, as I rarely get to put ratings on films that feel hollow or unnecessary. This one is a particularly curious case – as it’s technically fantastic. In a year where Dumbo failed to fly and where Aladdin surpassed all my expectations, I was expecting something a little better from this production.
If you don’t know the story by now – where have you been? The Lion King has always been the big jewel in the crown of the Disney Renaissance, that period between 1989 and 1999 where each movie produced was a memorable classic (The Rescuers Down Under falling a little short). Ask any fan of Disney’s animated movies during this period, and they will likely put this and Beauty and The Beast on the same pedestal.
The Lion King (Walt Disney Studios)
But, back to the story. It’s essentially a feline take on Hamlet. Scar, an embittered lion whose older brother Mufasa has control of the pride and is set to pass down duties of king to his son Simba, is hatching a plan. Simba is young and precocious, but deeply loves his father. Working with a band of local hyena, Scar sets wheels in motion to topple his brother and to exile Simba, so that he can ascend to king of the pride. How does this all go down? It’s likely you already know, but it’s a story that’s always worth seeing.
Ok – so positive points first. This is one of Disney’s best-looking remakes so far. Favreau was the ideal director for the job, having breathed new life into The Jungle Book, and yes – everything is very pretty. Stunning, probably, if you saw this in 3D or IMAX. For looks alone, it’s a movie which deserves at least two stars. The rest of the package, however, is where things really start to fall apart.
The elephant in the room here is, of course, that it is a carbon-copy remake of the original movie. While Aladdin tapped into the heart of the animated original by enhancing its story and with masterful direction, The Lion King is perfectly happy to plod along, line of dialogue after line of dialogue that you’d already heard in the animated version. There are a few changes here and there – the hyena characterisations, and the new twists on scene-stealers Timon and Pumbaa are noteworthy, and genuinely help things along. There’s a new song in the mix, too. The rest of it – honestly – is exactly the same.
The more cynical viewers out there will already be claiming that this remake is nothing short of a cash-grab. I hate to be cynical too, however – there is just no heart, no soul in this project. James Earl Jones sounds bored out of his skull to have recorded these lines again. It feels as though we’re watching take two, with very pretty graphics, and with absolutely nothing more to take home anew. The story is still great – the characters are likeable – but they’re the same, mostly, as the ones we’ve seen hundreds of times over before.
There’s also concern going around that the appeal of the visuals may be high, but there is a distinct lack of emotion on these characters’ faces. Dumbo got this spot on, but failed in other areas. Jungle Book suffered a little, but not enough for it to be an issue. Lion King 2019 is a bland, unmemorable exercise in parroting back an old script. It’s likely most millennials will have seen the original movie at least once, and if they’re like me, many, many more times. To not get anything more than a few fancy visuals and a bit of character tinkering is nothing short of disappointing.
The Lion King - Official Trailer (Walt Disney Studios)
I do hold The Lion King in very high regard as one of Disney’s finest animated features. It’s likely Disney does, too. It set tons of records, and in another blockbuster year for the brand, it’s going to be millions more in the bank. That being said, why didn’t they do something a little bit different with this idea? Aladdin was safe, yet intriguing. It expanded the story world and showed us more to Agrabah than we’d ever seen before. Sure, Lion King 2019 gives us CG renders of the Pridelands, but it does absolutely nothing else of merit.
I hate to say it – but this is a movie which will be ranking very low on my end of year lists. If you’re still interested in going to watch it, you’ll likely enjoy it – and I dare say a new generation yet to see the 1994 movie will get a lot out of it. But for everyone else, and for the sheer sake of the art form, Lion King 2019 is mind-numbingly derivative, and astonishingly smug about it. Next please.