“Find your place in the circle of life.”
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones
Touted at the time as Disney’s first original feature film, The Lion King was the fifth film in the Disney Renaissance, and the most successful offering of that period by a substantial margin, as well as playing a substantial role in the spread of major animation studios such as Dreamworks Animation. The film is a coming of age adventure, folowing young lion Simba (Matthew Broderick) as he grows up in exile and returns to face his wicked uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) and avenge the murder of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). It caught a storm of controversy over similarities to Kimba the White Lion, the English language dub of a Japanese anime film called Jungle Emperor Leo, but remains one of the iconic products of the House of Mouse.
In 2019, The Lion King became the latest movie from the Disney back-catalogue to receive a ‘live-action’ remake, directed by the man who did the same to The Jungle Book. I use sarcastic quotes because, unlike the 2016 The Jungle Book, there is no human presence, and in fact what we have is almost – or perhaps actually – entirely computer animation.
Simba (JD McCrary) is the son of Mufasa (Jones) and Sarabi (Woodard), the King of the Pridelands and the leader of the lionesses who hunt for and defend the pride. While Mufasa and his adviser the hornbill Zazu (Oliver) try to guide Simba towards a positive model of altruistic monarchy, his brooding uncle Scar (Ejiofor) plots to seize power.
First urging Simba and his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) into danger in the denuded hunting grounds of a hyaena pack led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and then recruiting the hyaenas to cause a stampede which kills Mufasa, Scar takes control of Pride Rock, while Simba flees, feeling responsible for his father’s death.
Falling in with the merry batchelors meerkat Timon (Eichner) and warthog Pumba (Rogen), Simba (Glover) rejects consequence and responsibility for a while, until Nala (Knowles-Carter) brings a) word that Scar has allowed the hyaenas to strip the Pridelands and b) a hefty whack of adolescent lion hormones, and wise old baboon Rafiki (Kani) helps him to realise that he has the strength to take his father’s place.
Accompanied by Timon and Pumba, Simba and Nala return to Pride Rock, where Simba challenges Scar, overcomes his doubts and restores balance to the land.
What’s wrong with it?
The degree to which Disney remakes cleave to the original varies. Maleficent was very different, Beauty and the Beast stayed very close, but in many places The Lion King is practically a shot-by-shot remake of the traditionally animated original. This process makes it incredibly obvious, both when the film does make changes, and when the photo-realistic animation detracts from the emotionality of the characters.
The shift to photo-realistic computer animation also places restrictions on the imagery of iconic moments that the film attempts to recreate. Favreau manages a strong reinterpretation of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ without putting a hippo en pointe, but ‘Be Prepared’ – one of the great villain songs of the Renaissance – ends up a bloodless recitation, and that’s a damn shame.
While I appreciate the expansion of Nala’s role, the film is still very heavily a guy thing.
Scar’s menacing aspect is part of a larger aesthetic which associates certain physical traits with evil, although really this is part of a much larger discussion.
What’s right with it?
The cast is solid. I suspect that they made a good choice keeping Jones as Mufasa – he sounds older, but he’s still James Earl Jones – and if I’m honest I don’t think I can name a Matthew Broderick performance which wouldn’t have been better played by anyone else.
The film expands on the role of the lionesses a little. I’m not sure I mind too much given the focus on female characters in most Disney films, but it’s never great seeing women as background.
The film also gives Zazu a much stronger role during Scar’s regime, and makes him a little less annoying.
How bad is it really?
The Lion King is a spectacular technical achievement, and in terms of story and performance is probably as good as the original. The more naturalistic appearance of the animals removes an element of facial expression, but in and of itself I don’t think it’s really any worse of a film, it’s just that in its absolute devotion to the original, it calls its own reason for existence into question (and the answer is, of course, money.)
But you know, there’s a lot to like here.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Obviously, one of the key moments that you can’t do with this animation style is Timon and Pumba providing a distraction by doing a hula dance. Rpelacing it with Timon introducing Pumba with the opening lines of ‘Be Our Guest’ is probably the film’s one moment of genuine genius.
What’s up with…?
- Insert commentary about ‘how lions really behave’ here. I mean, seriously, lion cubs aren’t presented to adoring crowds of herbivores by a baboon mystic, so we’re right in the same territory as complaining that Port Royal would have been devastated by an earthquake in a film where the Caribbean is just lousy with the undead.
Production values – In as much as this film has a non-financial justification, it’s the ability to make this film in such a way that my first impulse is to call it a ‘live-action remake’. 3
Dialogue and performances – The cast for this one is superb, and manage to turn in performances that aren’t just copies of the original. 7
Plot and execution – The film loses points here for walking a pre-blazed trail. By definition, we’ve seen this story before. 11
Randomness – Honestly, the film is a little too predictable. It could do with a few unexpected tangents. 5
Waste of potential – This one is a tough call. I mean, it could have been terrible, and it isn’t, but it also makes a few really weird calls. 9