In many ways, Disney has long applied the “circle of life” philosophy to its classic animated movies, now routinely reborn and recycled into “live-action re-imaginings.” But it’s only recently that the studio has drawn from the well of its 90s-era films with 2017’s Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin from earlier this year. With 2019’s The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau, Disney has perhaps hit a peak moment in its most shamelessly nostalgic undertaking, by truly delivering a shot-for-shot remake that ferociously stampedes through the uncanny valley.
2019’s The Lion King has no royal authority over the best of these recent remakes (The Jungle Book, also directed by Jon Favreau, and Pete’s Dragon continue to be the house standard), but it does rule when it comes to its technical achievements. Despite being a mostly computer-generated film, the dominion of Pride Rock is a fully-realized location where sight and sound dance in near-perfect harmony, sung beautifully by a voice cast worthy of the throne.
The 1994 original is a masterpiece of animated storytelling, brimming with unforgettable vistas, dramatic heft, and iconic compositions, so iconic in fact that they return in this film with barely a note changed, which is made clear in an opening scene that wastes no time establishing this film’s slavish devotion to repeating exact frames of the original with a wash of dry, pixelated paint. The story takes no detours, simply a straight patrol through the familiar beats aligned with Hans Zimmer’s practically untouched score, down to most of the dialogue and lyrics carrying over with the hopes that audiences will find them just as potent now as they did 25 years ago.
But this is where The Lion King stumbles due to its own logistical limitations. Live-action, by circumstance alone, has no place as heir to the cinematic advantages inherent in animation, at least of this kind. The Lion King can only mimic, never build upon the source material it clings to with only the rarest new idea. The most apparent drawback in this stylistic transition is in how obviously difficult it is for an aesthetically live-action lion to match the expressive power of an animated protagonist.
Yes, Simba is a cute cub with movements that match the expected behavior of perhaps a creature in a Disneynature documentary, but The Lion King is by no means a subtle or naturally authentic story where this attention to detail truly matters. It’s a novelty to see animals acting out the dated storyboards of an animated film in convincing slow-motion, but at no point does any of this effort amount to something greater or even equal to what’s come before it.
Thankfully, there are two exceptions in the form of a meerkat and warthog. While other characters are going through the motions of their story arcs (with Mufasa being voiced once again by James Earl Jones), Timon and Pumbaa are beacons of actual imagination. The soul of the original characters is graciously intact, with Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella rightfully respected for their memorable stamps on these lovable creatures, but Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen bring their own unique personalities to both the writing and delivery of what might have otherwise been afterthoughts.
If only the same appetite for creativity had been applied to the dialogue and story structure for everyone else. The adult Simba, voiced by Donald Glover, and Nala, voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, generate as much life as possible with only their sheer charisma to carry the weight, and an awkwardly rushed third act robs these characters of any standout moments they’re roaring to realize. It’s a limp to the finish as Scar, voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is made to be a political cautionary tale, rather than a dynamic villain wielding any of the bravado or dry wit once offered. His tragic flaw, the overhunting of the Pride Lands, has perhaps an unintentionally ironic connection to Disney’s treatment of its own beloved properties.
I’d give an overview of the plot points, but the film itself does this quite enough. As an accessory to 1994’s The Lion King, the remake is a passable excursion through what’s currently possible with modern CGI, but like with all technology, this will age as poorly as the skeletons in Pirates of the Caribbean. And without these flourishes to boast, what will 2019’s The Lion King offer audiences in 2034? By then, Disney might have the gumption to reformat the film as an animated production yet again. And hopefully at that point, some innovative potential might mystically appear in the bark.