The opening sequence of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, Disney’s latest reimagining of one of their animated classics, is a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening number from the original 1994 film. We open to a rising sun and hear the loud, iconic opening to “Circle of Life” and see the animals all reacting. This sequence is truly breathtaking and an incredible way to start the film. The photo-realistic animals and the way they move, the African Savanna, Pride Rock, all the details, everything is jaw-dropping. This scene brought me back to when I was a young kid watching the original. All the emotion and sense of wonder came rushing back to me. Had the movie ended right after this scene, it would have been an awe-inspriring masterpiece.
But the movie continues and that is when we start to see some problems. Though there is a lot to like, like the visuals, the classic songs, and the voice cast, the photo-realism is actually the films biggest downfall and makes for an emotionless, flat experience.
We’ve all seen the original, so I’m not going to hide any spoilers when discussing the film. And if you haven’t seen the original, it’s been out for 25 years, so it’s on you now. For a quick plot reminder, Simba (voiced by JD McCray) is the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the king of Pride Rock. Simba can’t wait to grow up and be king while Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chewitel Ejiofor), feels he’s should be king instead. When Scar sets up a stampede that puts Simba in danger, Mufasa goes to save him, only to be stabbed in the back my Scar, who ends up causing his death. Scar manipulates Simba into thinking he is responsible for his father’s death and Simba runs away from Pride Rock, making Scar the new king. While running away, Simba settles in with a free-wheeling meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner), and warthog, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), who teach Simba to grow up with a fun and free way of thinking. When Simba’s old friend Nala (Beyoncé) finds him and informs him of Scars reign of terror, Simba, now grown (and voiced by Donald Glover), must learn responsibility and bravery in order to save Pride Rock and his family.
The photo-realism of the film is something to behold. The way they move and the way they look are like I was watching one of Disney’s nature documentaries rather than a narrative feature. There is so much detail in everything on the screen, from the fur on the lions to the eyes or Timon to the random lizard just hanging out on a rock and Favreau makes sure we see the details with numerous close-ups that highlight everything, though it sometimes feel like Favreau is showing off and showing how impressed he is with himself in these extra shots. This is a film that runs almost a half hour longer than the 1994 original, yet nothing new was really added. There’s a snippet of Beyoncé’s new song written for the film that only accounts for a minute or so, but other than that, the rest of the added time is just Favreau extending sequences to show how great he the film looks and nothing more, which is rather annoying.
The awe of the photo-realism fades away shortly after the opening sequence and that’s when you begin to notice the problem with this idea. Here’s the thing about lions: they don’t show emotion very well. What made the original so great was that the animation was so stunning and fun that it allowed the characters to show emotion. We saw Simba having fun and being scared. We saw the look on Mufasa’s face when Scar stabbed him in the back. We saw the fear and sadness of the lions when they found out Mufasa was dead and we saw the happiness that Timon and Pumbaa brought Simba. This elevated our emotions throughout the film and made us feel more a part of Simba’s journey. We don’t see any of that here and the result is a rather emotionless slog. When Mufasa dies, the high-point of the film and arguably one of the most iconic scenes in any animated film, I felt nothing. Not because I’d seen the scene before, the scene has always been a tough one to watch when I’ve rewatched the original, but because we don’t see any emotion from the lions. We don’t see Mufasa’s face when he realizes what Scar is doing, or Simba crying at his dead father’s feet, or the evil glare of Scar. This sucks the emotion right out the movie and as the film continues, they continue to fail on showing emotion. We don’t see how much fun Timone and Pumbaa are having with Simba, we don’t see the love growing between Simba and Nala, and we don’t see the anger on the face of Simba during his final showdown with Scar. As great as the photo-realism looks, it really takes all the heart and emotion out of the film.
Since none of the animals can show emotion, it is up to the voice actors to create the emotion and for the most part, they do a good job. Favreau was able to assemble a pretty great cast with the likes of Glover, Rogen, Eichner, Jones, Ejiofor, Beyoncé, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Keegan Michael Key, Eric Andre, and Florence Kasumba, among others. James Earl Jones is in the pocket and knows this character like the back of his hand and rules. Oliver, Rogen, and Eichner are hilarious and scene stealers. Glover is solid and does some good singing, and Ejiofor is the true stand out of the film, bringing an anger and fierceness to Scar. It was big shoes to fill from Jeremy Iron’s iconic performance, but Ejiofor fills them and then some. The entire cast is good and suit their characters except for one person: Beyoncé. The Queen B herself gives a performance that felt like she had a gun pointed at her head. There is no effort put into her voice work and I would be amazed if she did more than two takes per line. It is absolutely abysmal and really ruined the last half of the film because it is all that I could focus on. I like Beyoncé in a lot of what she does, but this performance is on a whole new level of bad.
The songs are great, the story is good, the voice acting works for the most part, and the visuals are impressive. But this 2019 version of The Lion King is missing emotion, heart, and fun, something the original film had in spades. This is one of the more disappointing Disney remakes.
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