It is commonly accepted that you—yes, you—like the original animated film The Lion King. Your friends more than likely assume so. The internet sure seems to think it. And no party is more certain of this fact than the Walt Disney Company. Based on said understanding, Disney has founded the advertisement of its latest photoreal CGI remake on its all-but-physical-resemblance to its 1994 predecessor. If you liked The Lion King, why wouldn’t you like the exact same The Lion King again, but this time “cooler looking”? That’s more or less been the marketing strategy, or so it’s seemed. And for better or worse, that’s pretty much the creative direction of the movie itself.
The Jon Favreau-helmed Lion King remake’s fealty to its groundbreaking forebear makes itself clear the instant the sun rises over the savanna to the tune of “Circle of Life.” At some point among an opening montage of jarringly familiar shots of marching elephants and flying waterbirds, you’ll form some kind of relationship with the realization that what you’re gearing up for isn’t simply affectionate tribute, but deliberate mimicry. Your enjoyment of the film going forward will depend almost entirely on whether that sounds like a nostalgia-enhanced good time or a distracting mistake.
The bad news for those dangling by a thread from the former mindset is that even its most faithful replications fall shy of that managed by the OG LK. “Cooler” and more technically impressive though this new generation of computer-animated beasts may be, they by and large lack the thespian flare of their 2D counterparts. Though nobody of sound mind is going to counter the belief that animals are wholly better than people, it’s our ability to see them as furry, feathery, or scaly human beings—and their occasional ability to meet us halfway—that has levied such prevalence of inter-species empathy.
But whatever measures were taken to find humanity in the faces of photoreal lions, hornbills, and warthogs seem to have fallen shy of their goal. Voice actor JD McCrary performs young Simba as plucky and precocious in his brighter moments and downright shattered at his darkest—you know which part I’m talking about. (And make no mistake about this: young Simba is invariably cute. Sometimes miraculously cute.) But so committed is The Lion King to making its lions look… just like lions, that even the ensemble’s strongest feats of drama are inevitably undercut.
While the commanding timber of Beyoncé carries almost enough natural authority and showmanship as not to be undone by the stoic design of her leonine vessel, adult Nala, Donald Glover’s softer and more naturalistic approach is whittled down to a greater degree by the expressionless face of adult Simba. But perhaps the biggest casualty of this overarching misstep is Scar, whose would-be dynamism (courtesy of Chiwetel Eijiofor) is reduced to one long stony scowl. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but “Be Prepared” is limited to a few seconds of spoken-word poetry, with nary a sashay to speak of.
This doesn’t take quite as big a toll on the comic performances. John Oliver proves tailor-made for the persnickety hornbill Zazu, mixing his neurotic charm into a read on the character first cooked up by Rowan Atkinson. On the same token, Billy Eichner trades in Nathan Lane’s snide take on Timon the meerkat in favor of his well-documented brand of hysterics, reaping plenty of hysterical line readings that nevertheless feel ill-fitting of such an otherwise self-serious picture.
If you’re beginning to resent how often this review harks back to The Lion King ’94, I’m right there with you. But The Lion King ’19 not only encourages comparison to its source material, it practically demands it; hell, the single lyrical change in the new rendition of “Hakuna Matata” is a one-line joke about the old rendition of “Hakuna Matata.”
With only a select few narrative deviations from the original (probably the most significant amendment is the graduation of Shenzi the head hyena from wry and goofy, à la Whoopi Goldberg, to dire and dangerous, à la Florence Kasumba… though, frankly, the character doesn’t get a lot of material anyway) and more than the lion’s share of exact duplication of old scenes, Disney’s latest remake doesn’t give you much of a choice but to let your mind return to memories of the original. In fact, it’s counting on that to get you in the theater; the problem is, once you’re there, the comparisons may not work in the new The Lion King‘s favor.