When it comes to The Lion King, I am probably the worst possible person you could ask to review it. Or maybe the best. The original is not only my favorite animated movie of all time; I daresay it is my #1 favorite movie of all time, period. Taking it a step further even, I think it’s probably one of my very favorite things on this entire earth…
When my time is done and you ask me what things meant the most to me in my life, The Lion King is probably going to be right there in my Top Ten. I used to watch it over and over again ad nauseum on VHS, and I knew every word of dialogue. The movie and its epic soundtrack were like sustenance to me, better than any food or drink. It was also one of the movies that first made me consciously think about getting into the film industry as a career, as I thought maybe I’d like to be an animator or writer at the time. Heck, when I was 12 I even wrote a 20-page story about a winged cheetah that was so obviously influenced by TLK it was embarrassing.
Fast forwarding to 2018/19, just the trailers alone for this new Lion King remake had me tearing up, and I’m not an easy crier. Thinking back over the last 15 years, I can only think of half a dozen times I ever cried, but 4 out of 6 times I was crying over something to do with cats (I’m sensing a pattern on that front). So I went into the theatre fully expecting to crash and burn within the first 2 minutes, and let me tell you, it was almost as difficult as expected. “The Circle of Life” was definitely the hardest part to get through, but I found that I evened out pretty well after that point. While “Circle” followed the original almost shot for shot, the rest of the movie was a little more liberal about being flexible with the shots, the music placement, and the dialogue. This was actually one of the tricky things about this movie: if you’re going to copy the original nearly word for word, just how closely do you follow it, and if you’re going to go that far, how jarring is it when you do change something up?
As a huge fan of the original movie, while I appreciated how closely they kept to it, at the same time the closeness made it quite apparent when something was different here or there, and it didn’t always feel natural. I could probably go into director mode myself on this and pick apart exactly which lines or shots or angles or musical placement I would have done differently, but, overall, the movie flowed well. There are moments when you could sense that the filmmakers only added or changed up certain parts to simply add their own touch. In many of these cases, honestly, I feel the lines would have been better just left alone. Most of the added bits are forgettable and just feel like unnecessary inserts.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were some iconic and memorable lines from the original which were missing, which I felt were mistakes to exclude. When you’re following the animated film so closely, how can you leave out, “You are my son, and the one true king?” I actually sat up straight in my seat when that one was skipped over, because I couldn’t believe they left it out. They never even progressed to having Mufasa, fully formed in the clouds, or really focused on Simba’s wonder at seeing him, which is one of the best and most memorable parts of the entire 1994 film. That scene just didn’t hit home the way it should have, and it wasn’t the only scene I felt that way about.
While the occasional script quirk was part of it, there were other factors that contributed to this film not quite reaching the heights of the original. One was the voice cast. While the performances were all competent enough, there was some element X that was missing, a lack of personality, and in some cases, line readings that just didn’t hit the mark. Oe of the reasons for this is that, in the classic Disney animated films, the voice casts would frequently record together in a group and be able to react honestly to one another in scenes; while, today, most voice actors are micromanaged separately in isolated voice booths. And that’s a shame. I will need to confirm that the 1994 cast did indeed record together, but that has been my understanding.
Add to that the knowledge that this has already been done once before, and done to perfection, it must be difficult as an actor trying to replicate that magic, but also somehow make it your own. In the end, it’s an impossible task, and it was accomplished passably. When Mufasa and Simba were bonding, I just didn’t feel it the way I did in ‘94, and even the mighty James Earl Jones did not make the impact in this film that he did in the original. JD McCrary did well enough as Young Simba, but sounded like any other young boy, who maybe could use a few more years of acting experience before he hits his stride. Donald Glover was an excellent choice for Adult Simba, and even sounded surprisingly like Matthew Broderick in some scenes, for what it’s worth. Beyonce is a glorious singer, as we all know, and I liked her song “Spirit,” but I’m not so sure I felt she was the right casting choice for the actual character of Nala. Others may disagree, but she just didn’t do it for me, and it wasn’t only because I couldn’t get past hearing her as simply her famous self.
A heavy presence that was missing from the film was Jeremy Irons as Scar. While Chiwetal Ejiofor is a wonderful actor and did the best he could have done with his natural gifts, his voice simply does not have the menace in it that Jeremy Irons does. Among the supporting cast, the most pleasant surprise was Seth Rogen as Pumbaa. He and Billy Eichner worked well together as a team, which made me wonder if they were able to record together and naturally bounce off one another (they must have). In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I found Pumbaa’s voice to be the only one I actually preferred over the original film.
The final piece of the puzzle forming the slight disconnect for me is the modern CGI animation, about which I have some conflicting feelings. While there is no question that it is likely the most beautifully animated film I have ever seen, and I absolutely love all the little real world touches on the ways all the different animals move and look, at the same time, I actually wish they would have dialed it back just a touch in the opposite direction, anthropomorphizing the lions and other wildlife a little more, making it more of an animated film (which is what it really is, let’s be honest) and less of a faux “live action.” Real lions and other animals just don’t make the same elaborate facial expressions that cartoon ones, or humans, do, and their eyes often appeared like there was nothing much behind them. It left them all lacking in personality, which was compounded by the attempts to copy, but also not copy, the original voice cast. A big part of the original film was seeing the pain and the joy on these character’s faces, and you just don’t see them here. I didn’t see the shock on Mufasa’s face when Scar betrayed him, and I didn’t see the grief on Simba’s face when Mufasa died. If you’re missing that, you’re missing a crucial part of the heart of the story.
Finally, I was fortunate enough to be able to see this film in a 4DX theatre. I was a bit skeptical of the wisdom of seeing it for the first time in 4DX, because I was worried it would be more a distraction than a boost, and to some extent that turned out to be true, but overall it was enjoyable. As I suspected, it’s not a movie you really want to bring any snacks into, because it’s too much to focus on all at once. You just want to be prepared (see what I did there?) to sit and absorb yourself in the whole experience, otherwise the moving seats will just be annoying. There were some cute effects here and there that I appreciated (bubbles during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” fog in the elephant graveyard), but I could take it or leave it in the end. I think 4DX suits itself best to large scale action flicks a la Marvel or Godzilla.
Overall, I found this film to be a lovely homage to the 1994 classic. I didn’t go into it expecting a replacement or an improvement, and it wasn’t. But if you go into it looking for a good time and some nostalgia with a few modern updates, I think you will not be disappointed. 3.75/5 Roars.