(2019—Director: Jon Favreau)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
(Also, following their initial mentions, I shall distinguish between the two versions of The Lion King using just their release years, i.e., 1994 and 2019.)
Potential spoilers below
I’d like to start with a cherished memory of mine: I was scouring the local theatre showtimes on Fandango towards the end of July 2017 when I noticed something peculiar: For some reason, select AMC theatres were re-releasing the 1994 Disney classic The Lion King during the first week of August. (Read Sam Hendrian’s recent article here.) I immediately searched the internet for any announcements or buzz about this, because such news embodies the phrase “too good to be true”. Other than the then-imminent Blu-Ray re-release and the distant CGI remake (the subject of this review), there was nothing on the internet talking about this spontaneous re-release for only the first week of August 2017. So, as one who sadly missed the successful 3D re-release back in 2011 (watch audience reaction here), I just had to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to witness the crown jewel of the Disney Renaissance on the big screen.
And I did. Twice.
And since both times barely had anyone in the auditorium with me—again, a spur-of-the-moment re-release with no internet buzz whatsoever—I was practically free to sing my heart out throughout the entire runtime. It was an unforgettable week. So unforgettable, in fact, that I wonder—no, shudder at—what my opinion of today’s movie would’ve been without the impact of watching the 1994 original on the big screen so recently.
This Jon Favreau-directed and Jeff Nathanson-scripted photorealistic CGI remake of The Lion King has left me speechless, and not in the positive sense. 2019 follows 1994 closely, enhanced in Disneynature-esque photo-realism and extended by 30 minutes. Yet the color, vibrancy, character personality, emotional weight, and memorability of 1994’s wondrous hand-drawn animation are tragically gutted. Simply put, I’m not happy, “Happy”.
This disappointment is present from 2019’s take on 1994’s most iconic opening shot. Yes, 1994 played savannah tones and sound effects in the background as the Disney logo came and went in darkness, but then it had Lebo M.’s (often-imitated and never-topped) “Nants’ ingonyama bagithi baba!”, raising the sun and the film with it. Here in 2019, we immediately fade in on the African savannah for several seconds, prior to the sunrise and Lebo M.’s call—akin to missing the cue for the start of a surprise party. The rest of “Circle of Life” 2019 is overtly a shot-for-shot remake. Though a few editing adjustments prevent 100 percent repetition, those shifted edits awkwardly disrupt the flow. What’s more, not only does the camera not track to Pride Rock’s promontory closely with Zazu (John Oliver) like it did in 1994, but the slack camera movement matches the real-life makeup of the land in how it’s robbed of 1994’s epic scale.
The scene with Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Zazu, and Mufasa (James Earl Jones) that follows the title screen further demonstrates how 2019 fails to match up to 1994. The movie spends an extra minute following the field mouse, Disneynature-style, that Scar nearly secures for lunch. While one may find intriguing the brutal and damaged aspects of Ejiofor’s take on Scar, his blunt vocal performance lacks the mischievous and scheming menace natural to Jeremy Irons’ voice in 1994. One begins to realize that John Oliver’s Zazu is merely a major domo that babbles, without the dignified pride for the job that Rowan Atkinson conveyed. Another disappointing, even tragic, realization is James Earl Jones, who sounds like he’s phoning in his performance. Lastly, while 1994 saw Hans Zimmer’s score cut off for the rest of the scene as soon as Zazu appears, here the overused main theme fills in the emotional void left behind by the film’s push for realism.
I could go on, comparing scene after scene of 2019 unfavorably with 1994: Try to avoid aching for Busby Berkeley-esque staging during the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence. React puzzlingly at how Scar isn’t already an ally of the hyenas, which undermines the impact of his fatal mistake near the end. Reject without comment the pitiful sampling and foggy visualization of “Be Prepared” 2019—the cinematic equivalent of “Sweet Victory”’s introductory fanfare leading into Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” at Super Bowl LIII’s halftime show. Analyze the underwhelming stampede scene, with the wildebeests too spaced apart to mimic the devastating torrent seen in 1994. Bring up the botched reading of “Long live the king”, the goofy and stuttered extreme pull from a horrified young prince that borders on laughable, and the brisk sorrow and deception that closes that sequence. Show mild approval towards Beyoncé’s casting as Nala, yet explain how her admittedly tense escape from Pride Rock undercuts her surprise reunion with Simba and her introduction to Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). State plainly that Seth Rogen as Pumbaa can’t sing to save his life and that it’s way too early in the day for the reunited Simba and Nala to sing a song called “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”.
No, instead I’ll just highlight one remarkable and egregious omission of 2019: John Kani (recently seen in…wow, Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Panther) doesn’t get much time to shine as wise mandrill Rafiki (portrayed in 1994 by Robert Guillaume). In fact, Kani’s Rafiki is so minimized that 2019 inadvertently loses one of the key lessons from 1994—how one shouldn’t flee from past pains, but instead learn from them. 2019 has already lost much of 1994’s magic, and now it has to lose one of 1994’s heartfelt lessons too?
This film hurt. Honest to God, hurt. The Lion King 2019’s sole bright spot (“Live Bait”) may be as ingenious here as it could’ve been in 1994, but it’s ultimately too little, too late. Jon Favreau (last seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home) had went “back to basics” with his 2014 offering Chef—arguably an allegorical response to working on big-budget studio projects like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens. Then, 2016’s The Jungle Book happened, a partial-reimagining of the 1967 Disney classic with the astonishing visual effects we now have in The Lion King 2019. We enjoyed it then and showered it with visual effects accolades, but as a movie overall, it’s just decent in hindsight. At least, though, it had a human, in the form of Neel Sethi’s Mowgli, with which to provide the spectacle with a standard for expressing emotion. The Lion King 2019 has no such relief, and as such it is easily the Mouse House’s most useless and shameful cash-grab remake to date. The last generation had Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, and now this generation has The Lion King 2019.
Oh well. At least Solomon Linda’s family should get a royalty boost for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as well as the cover of the original “Mbube” at the tail-end of the closing credits. And at least some of us still have our worn-out VHSs and DVDs with which to experience the original 1994 masterpiece and only the original 1994 masterpiece henceforth.
Please don’t let us down, Frozen II.
Parental Note: The Lion King 2019 has been rated…
• PG by the MPAA “for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements”;
• PG by the BBFC for “mild threat” and “violence”;
• A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “considerable stylized violence among animals, characters in peril, nonscriptural rituals, and fleeting scatological humor”; and
• +1 (“Worthwhile”, “merits caution for younger children”) by Movieguide for being “light” on language and “moderate” on violence (“scary scenes of lions fighting each other”).
Extended Premise: Young lion Simba (JD McCrary as young, Donald Glover as adult) can’t wait to rule over the Pride Lands of the African savannah, currently held by his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original film). Simba’s wicked uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), plots to usurp the throne by leading hyenas from the outskirts—namely Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan Michael-Key), and Azizi (Eric Andre)—to lure the king and prince into a stampede of wildebeests. Mufasa is killed, but Simba manages to flee into the wilderness. While Scar assumes the throne with the hyenas as his personal ravenous army, Simba gets taken in by a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Though the two take care of Simba and see him to adulthood with their worry-free lifestyle, Simba knows that he’ll eventually have to return to his kingdom and claim what is rightfully his.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.