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THE LION KING (2019) Review

Yes, that’s right. Another Disney remake.

I have to say – if I wasn’t so enamored with Disney due to the decades of satisfaction they’ve brought me as a consumer, I seriously would be up-in-arms over these blatant cash-grabs known as their remakes. But speaking of remakes – while we’re on the subject, I only have one rule in this regard (this especially applies to remakes of classic films): make it worthwhile. That’s literally all I ask.

What do I mean by that? Simple – if you’re going to remake a film, make it different enough to be worthwhile. You can still keep everything in it that made people love it in the first place – while at the same time, changing enough so that it doesn’t feel like we are watching the same movie all over again. And this is where Disney seems to struggle: out of all of their current remakes, none of them surpass their original predecessors in overall quality nor storytelling. What’s the point of paying 2019 movie ticket prices to watch something when we could easily watch the same exact thing at home for free or much less (and of superior quality)?

It’s for this reason that I dreaded the release of Disney’s THE LION KING remake. For those who don’t know: THE LION KING is my absolute favorite Disney film, and on my list of overall Top 10 Favorite Films as well. After being entertained, yet nonetheless still disappointed, in the remakes of CINDERELLA, THE JUNGLE BOOK, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, DUMBO, and ALADDIN, I did not want to see THE LION KING added to this list – based solely on my love for the film. But alas, I decided to go into this with an open mind, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – this remake would be worth it.

As the sun rises over the African savanna, the creatures of the Pride Lands make their way to Pride Rock as King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard) announce the birth of their son, Simba – the new prince and heir. As Rafiki (voiced by John Kani) presents the cub to the populace, not everyone is in a celebratory mood. In the shadows, Mufasa’s brother Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) isn’t too thrilled that his place in the line of succession has been rendered moot due to the birth of the prince. As Simba’s admirers watch from below, Scar – ever the conniver – is simply biding his time.

The visual effects and overall look of the film are simply stunning. There were quite a few sequences that are so well shot and composed that I found my suspension of disbelief kicking in constantly, with thoughts such as, “that looks so real” or “this was computer-animated? Really?” constantly crossing my mind. Director Jon Favreau and his effects team, led by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, did a tremendous job on creating the film’s overall visuals and its lasting look – from the gorgeous shot of the sun rising at the beginning of the film, to the shot of Simba and Scar locking fists (or paws, I should say) among the flames surrounding Pride Rock. This also applies to the film’s other big action sequence: the Stampede (full disclosure – I was on the precipice of man-tears during this one. Not ashamed in the least to admit it). If this film has a lasting legacy, it will be as an immense showcase of how far the technologies of animation have come.

The voice-acting, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. Huge props go to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his portrayal of Scar. You can feel the evil oozing from Ejiofor as he delivers his lines, encompassing everything that Scar is supposed to be. Ejiofor really goes for broke in creating a Scar unique to this version of the story; easily my favorite part of the film. Ditto for Billy Eichnner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. The performances of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella in the original are so etched in the minds of adults right now that topping them would be no easy feat. While I don’t feel Eichnner and Rogen’s performances were “better,” per se, they did bring a different sort of chemistry to the characters that – like Ejiofor’s Scar – make it unique to this version of THE LION KING. John Oliver’s Zazu was also entertaining enough, bringing some of the comedian’s natural wit to the character’s portrayal. It was just a little hard (being such a John Oliver fan) to get lost in the character when all I could hear was Oliver’s voice.

Everyone else really didn’t impress me. Donald Glover didn’t bring anything new to Simba, Beyonce was just “there” as Nala (same with Alfre Woodard’s Sarabi), and John Kani’s Rafiki had almost zero lines (which, in fairness, the original’s Rafiki was in the same boat, but this is where my biggest gripe of the film comes from). Unfortunately, the biggest offender here was James Earl Jones’ Mufasa. Reprising his iconic performance from the original, I honesty expected a little more energy and fire than what we got. It really sounded like he was just there – no firmness, no strength, no command – nothing that made his original performance so powerful. This change in tonality, according to director Favreau, was deliberate, in order to make Mufasa seem like “a king who’s ruled for a long time.” The problem with that logic is that we already felt that way about Mufasa in the original. Just because he sounded more energetic and younger, that doesn’t necessarily negate the respect that we, the audience, already felt for Mufasa as the king. This reasoning almost feels like an excuse for Jones’ subpar performance. But in stating this, I also understand that Jones is 88 years old, and he probably just couldn’t perform at that level anymore. If that’s the case, then why not just recast? No one else returned from the original film other than Jones, and while having him back in one of his best roles is some nice fan service, the end product is something that just makes me cherish his original performance all the more.

But as teased above, my biggest gripe of the film comes from its storytelling and pacing. While it is not quite accurate to call this a shot-for-shot remake, it might as well have been. It hits all of its story beats nearly identical to its predecessor, yet it insists on adding unnecessary filler to not only make it “different,” but to deliberately increase the film’s runtime in order to say, “see, this version is longer, so it’s different.” There’s a particularly egregious sequence that I won’t mention here due to spoilers, but I will say this: in the original, this sequence from start-to-finish took about 1 minute. Here, the same sequence leading to the same conclusion took close to five minutes to give us the same information!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I loathe these remakes so much. Disney makes minor (and I do mean minor) changes to a story and expect you to believe that it is a completely different film worth plunking down $20 to see. The worst thing about this practice (and this especially applies to THE LION KING) is the fact that by adding those extra minutes of unnecessary stuff to the film, it forces them to trim down sequences that actually matter! From the moment that Simba and Nala reunite until “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” starts kicking in, I don’t think even two minutes passes by. Now granted, in the original it was only a slightly longer setup (probably only an extra minute or two), but how is it that in that little bit of extra time, the scene feels perfectly set up, while here it just feels rushed? It’s almost like at this point, Favreau and his editors just said, “oh, well we were adding too many useless shots throughout the rest of the film to make it longer and different, we’re gonna have to speed through this love scene – the audience knows the drill already.” But all they did was make this important scene feel hollow and emotionless as a result. Excellent work, guys!

And don’t even get me started on the butchering of “Be Prepared.” The less said about that, the better. If you’re curious enough, Twitter is full of posts on this subject.

Yet, here is the craziest part of all of it – despite all of its flaws, I actually don’t hate this. THE LION KING pretty much fell within my line of expectations – it was a disappointingly useless remake of one of my favorite films of all-time, but I can’t sit here and say that I wasn’t entertained. I guess you could say that, by the time the film reached its climax, I had already become lost in the film’s spectacle. And none of the film’s flaws will take away from how gorgeous the film looks and feels. This, along with many of the original songs retaining their integrity, has helped me see past those flaws and take the film not for the blatant cash-grab that it is, but as the nostalgia trip that, in these troubling real-world times, couldn’t have come at a better time. Maybe it’s my love of the original film talking here, but I feel that out of all the remakes, this is probably my favorite one so far, warts and all. Though that’s not really saying much, it really does speak to how much the film still managed to keep this moviegoer entertained.

So should you see it? Well, if you’re someone who has enjoyed the Disney remakes so far, chances are you’ll at least have a good time at this one. And honestly, Ejiofor’s Scar is certainly something worth taking a peek at, along with many of the film’s incredible shots and sequences. But I’m not sure it’s enough to plunk down $20 for; if you are part of a movie-subscription service (like AMC Stubs A-List or Alamo Season Pass), or if you want to take advantage of any discount days that movie theaters have, then that’s probably the best route to take. Because overall this is not a film worth paying full price to see at a theater when its superior predecessor is readily available via other platforms.

Leave it to Disney to inspire me to write a review detailing what’s wrong with their cash-grab remakes, only for me to turn around at the end and say I still enjoyed them. Curse you, House of Mouse!

Jon Favreau
2019 • 118 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Walt Disney Studios
Cast: Jame Earl Jones, Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Alfre Woodard, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Billy Eichnner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, John Kani

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