Review: 'The Lion King' 2019
"No, hold on. Sorry, that's The Lion King."
- Doctor Who, "The Christmas Invasion"
The Lion King is a 2019 movie directed by Jon Favreau. It is a faithful adaptation of the 1994 animated movie of the same name, using cutting edge, realistic CGI animation to create it's cast consisting entirely of talking animals.
The original version is considered a classic of animation; this movie follows the original closely enough that most of its positive attributes are contained. There is enough deviation from the original that those familiar may get something new from the experience. Like most adaptations, most viewers will find the "original" is preferable, however.
So, that's the review, okay, bye!
Now wait a minute, what are you all doing down here below the fold? I told you all that the review is over. It's an okay movie, but not as good as the original. What else do you need to know? Shoo! Get out of here!
You're still reading, I see. Okay, if you insist, I suppose I can talk a little bit more about the movie. Just don't expect much. If you're looking for a caustic takedown of an execrable abomination, well, I mean, the movie isn't the latter so I'm not doing the former. If you really want to know how I feel, the truth is it's mostly mild amusement.
The Lion King (the original) is a bit of a thing for a great many people, so I guess a remake of this sort would ruffle a few feathers. A great many people like it (enough to warrant a remake, in fact), and I'm one of those people. I suppose it's the first movie I saw and actually cared about enough that now, a quarter century later, I'm still writing about movies. But, anyway, I'm not alone. Part of it, of course, is nostalgia factor. Part of it is that this is a Disney property, and Disney itself has it's own cult of followers. But part of it is also that, all said and done, it's actually a pretty good movie.
So, a quarter century later is actually a pretty fair amount of time to wait to remake a pretty good movie, seems to me. I'm not very concerned with whether or not Disney should be making original movies, because who cares. Technically, The Lion King was the first Disney animated feature to be "original", but everybody knows it's basically just Kimba the White Lion inspired visuals pasted over a G-rated version of Hamlet, and that at this point in Disney's history, movies were coming out by formula. (Note: Some anime fans get real upset about the Kimba thing, but they all seem to fail to acknowledge Kimba's pretty obvious Disney heritage in it's own visuals.) If you're worried that The Lion King (2019) is a cynical ploy to make money for Disney, well, I hate to break it to you, but so was The Lion King (1994). No, I'm less worried about whether or not Disney makes original content so much as whether or not they make good content.
Of course, one interesting bit of controversy with this film is that, while it's basically being sold as a live action update, it's every bit as animated as the original, which ends up in the rather uncomfortable position of animations fans rather snobbishly making fun of an animated movie— for being animated. On one hand, of course it's animated; as pedants like to point out, "animation is a medium, not a genre". But it's also clearly not a cartoon like the original was. It may use the same medium, but it is using this medium for vastly different purposes. The animation used here is very clearly supposed to look as photo-realistic as possible; that's the goal here. It's a special effect. In the original, the use of animation, though fairly realistic on a "realistic-to-stylized" scale, is still very stylized.
One thing I really appreciated about the original more after seeing this remake is its use of color to set moods and otherwise convey emotions. In this remake, I believe a choice was made to use naturalistic, uncolored lighting even in cases when this would contradict the mood or tone of the scene in question. This had to be a choice, because the movie would necessarily, given the way it was made, have to be color-corrected. The movie opts for a look that reflects a nature documentary. A consequence of this decision is that some emotional impact is definitely lost in certain scenes. Heck, the movie's poster pictured above uses color more creatively than the actual movie.
One consequence of this "realistic at all costs" approach that has been over-exaggerated, however, is that the animal characters are less expressive, which is true, but not to a detrimental level. The voice actors' performances are all fine enough to overcome any difficulties, and maybe it's just because I own a cat, but most of the cast are animals that I can read emotionally, even if the way they convey these emotions are not one to one with how a human (or an anthropomorphic cartoon lion) would.
Seeing as how "make this cartoon look as real as possible" is the major aesthetic decision here, the story is mostly the same. In fact, the opening scene is an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original's opening. Amusingly, the next scene, which contained a surprise jump scare in the original, omits that, cheekily admitting that the remake isn't going to be that faithful from here on out while also giving an uneasy sense of tension to the scene, which is the introduction of the villain, so that's nice. However, it's the villains where the movie most deviates from the original, and not for the better.
One thing that isn't often remarked upon about the original is how funny the movie is. This movie seems to consciously move away from that. Only Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen) are allowed to be the funny guys they were in the original. I guess two of the three main hyenas are also allowed to be funny, but not by much.
In fact, the whole hyena thing in this movie is definitely handled worse than the original, and we've spent the last quarter decade wondering if, "hey, is this movie pro-segregation?" thanks to the original movie's take. For some inexplicable reason, in the new movie they get directly blamed for turning the volcanic elephant graveyard into a wasteland. At least the original movie allowed the possibility that they are a marginalized group whose genuine grievances with the lions are exploited by Scar. I mean, they're hardly innocents in either case as they sure agree to participate in a double homicide fairly quickly. But they are also hungry and desperate, yet capable of keeping their senses of humor about their situation! Heck, they're one of the few Disney Renaissance Evil Sidekicks who actually call out their evil overlord! However, in this movie, they're just hired goons.
Scar, as played by Jeremy Irons, may have been a bit problematically camp, but he was also undeniably charismatic. You get the feeling that Simba in the original actually really liked his weird uncle, at least until he figured out the plot of the movie in his adult years. The hyenas are also totally taken in with him, calling him their friend. They seem genuinely hurt when he tries to blame them for the whole thing in the original. Not so much in this movie. It's not Chiwetel Ejiofor's fault. He's just written as a bit of a loser. Not only are the hyenas under no illusions that they are friends, but they only meet him face-to-face during the "Be Prepared" scene.
If there's any real problem with this remake that weakens it, that's it. It needs a stronger villain. I mean, I think most of this site's audience will prefer the stylization of animation-as-cartoon over the realism of animation-as-special-effect, it could have lightened up and cracked a few more jokes, and, oh, yeah, Jon Favreau seems pretty ambivalent about the musical elements. But, all in all, needs more hyenas.
Okay, now I'm really done, bye!