The initial promotional pieces tagged the 2019 The Lion King as a “live-action” adaptation. The live-action description was ultimately dropped in favor of promoting the remake/reimagining as utilizing pioneering filmmaking techniques and photo-real digital imagery to bring the beloved animal characters to life.
While the filmmaking technique is unarguably groundbreaking, the story never strays from the original animated classic. Just as with the original film, the 2019 version begins with King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) introducing their bouncing baby boy, Simba (JD McCrary), to the residents of Pride Rock backed by a rousing rendition of “Circle of Life.”
Mufasa’s proud of his young cub and eager to teach him the ways of the world. Along with his trusted right-hand man – or, more accurately, right-hand bird – Zazu (John Oliver), Mufasa imparts important life lessons to the young cub who’s destined to be king.
Simba’s a curious little guy who’s unaware of the threat to the kingdom posed by his Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor in full-on acid dripping from his tongue villain mode). Tricked by Scar into luring his father to his death, a guilt-ridden Simba leaves Pride Rock and strikes out on his own.
Believing his family and friends would hold him responsible for Mufasa’s passing, Simba ventures into unfamiliar territory where he becomes the third musketeer to a farting warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner), a wisecracking meerkat.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
Time passes, songs are sung, and Simba grows into a handsome (vegetarian) lion. Meanwhile, Pride Rock has suffered under the rule of Scar and his hyena minions. The herds of animals that roamed the kingdom under Mufasa’s rule have either been eaten or fled, and even the ground has transformed from luscious greenery to barren earth.
Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) is eventually forced into action, sneaking away in the dead of night to find help. Much to her shock and delight, she discovers Simba is alive and well. Sparks fly as Nala and Simba reunite, and Simba finally realizes it’s up to him to save his family and his father’s kingdom.
The Lion King’s at its best when it focuses on the young Simba. JD McCrary is terrific at conveying Simba’s inquisitive nature, the range of emotions he goes through in dealing with the horrific death of his father, and his joy as he tackles new adventures and relationships. When Donald Glover takes over as the adult Simba, the energy level is tamped down. The same can be said to a lesser degree comparing the voice work done by Shahadi Wright Joseph as the young Nala to that of Beyonce as the adult Nala.
Director Jon Favreau’s packed the supporting voice cast with a formidable ensemble of actors. The standouts among the group include James Earl Jones, once again lending his unmistakable bass voice to Mufasa as he reprises his role from the 1994 animated blockbuster. John Oliver’s terrific as the agitated, by-the-book Zazu and Chiwetel Ejiofor sends shivers down your spine as Scar.
But it’s Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner who walk/prance/dance away with the film as the Hakuna Matata-loving Pumbaa and Timon. The oddball warthog and meerkat friends (originally voiced by Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane) were the surprise stars of the 1994 animated production, and remain fan favs decades after that film’s theatrical release. This 2019 version should also have kids bugging their parents for stuffed versions of the goofball characters.
The new version’s nearly a beat-for-beat remake with a few added shots of scenery and a couple new songs. Truly, it’s all about the visuals with this remake and those visuals are spectacular. The new techniques utilized in 2019’s The Lion King have solved the creepy dead eyes problem that ruins most CGI characters. The eyes catch the light and the fur/feathers move realistically. The backgrounds are gorgeously rendered and inviting, so much so that it’s possible to forget this isn’t a nature documentary at times.
Disney’s been mining their animated films for remakes with mixed success. This year alone they’ve released live-action versions of Dumbo and Aladdin, and now The Lion King gets a photo-real version. Do we need these new takes on classic stories? No, not really. These remakes are blatant attempts to wring more cash from beloved tales and feel a little lazy.
Dumbo was a big miss, with the emotional heart and soul of the original absent from the remake. Aladdin fared much better as it used the basics of the original plot but added cool, updated touches to reinvigorate the story. The Lion King played it super safe, opting for a note-for-note recreation of the original. The story hasn’t been updated to reflect the strides taken in empowering females on screen, so don’t expect Nala and Sarabi to suddenly become warrior figures. Also, don’t expect to be humming the original songs written for this remake.
New audiences just being introduced to Simba and his friends will find a lot to enjoy about 2019’s The Lion King. Those of us who can still remember the words to “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” might have a more difficult time understanding the point of this remake.
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes