‘The Lion King’ visually stunning and absolutely unnecessary

by Kate Walz on July 18, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist]

Disney’s original 1994 animated The Lion King came out the year I turned 12. I saw it in theaters – it was absolutely epic, a complete game changer. The landscape was different – no castles, no magic. The songs were by that guy my parents liked. And the story (Hamlet – apparently I can’t get away from it this month), while not that far from the usual Disney ‘My parents are smothering me’ fare, was somehow darker and more treacherous in a harsh African landscape. It left an impression. And then I watched it with my own kids, and tainted as they are by Frozen, they also enjoyed it.

So when I sat in the theater and saw the brand new version of The Lion King (I saw it on IMAX – and it’s the only way to go) – and the sun rose over Pride Rock in perfectly rendered graphic photorealism and that familiar vocal performance started, it knocked the wind out of me. It was like going back in time or being dropped into a dream.

It’s absolutely visually breathtaking. There are a few trouble spots graphically. For one thing, real lions don’t smile, so the range of facial expressions the cartoon version enjoyed isn’t available. The realistic graphics and the lack of facial expressions sometimes creates a Milo and Otis effect – like these are well-trained show animals being dubbed over.

But this is 95 percent a shot-for-shot remake, and in an interest of adherence to brands, there’s nothing really new here. And the whole thing feels wholly unnecessary.

I actually really liked the Beauty and the Beast remake a few years ago – flesh and blood actors in the role, remaking a film that didn’t do much to add to film history beyond a song and a tracking shot lifted from Hitchcock. It breathed life into the old story, partially because they absolutely nailed the casting.

The casting for The Lion King is formulaic and boring. Every single actor is absolutely playing on their own brand – and that’s what happened the first time. Jeremy Irons was known for theatrical roles, James Earl Jones for that voice and fatherly wisdom, Matthew Broderick for impulsive, youthful Bueller, and Rowan Atkinson for a bit of British silliness.

This is more of the same – except that in 2019, personal branding is a phrase people use. It’s more than just playing a type – it’s a hustle. Stacking the talent deck with actors adhering to their brands is now the same thing as product placement.

James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa and it’s just so boring. Who knows, maybe they just used his first performance (although this Mufasa is a bit more accessible). Couldn’t he have played Scar? John Oliver is also a bit of British silliness (Try an Irish guy? It’s all so uninspired). Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar and Alfre Woodard as Sarabi bring solid, nuanced performances, but they’re overshadowed by the strict adherence to brand.

I was most excited for Donald Glover in the role of adult Simba (I used to have a “Troy and Abed in the Morning” mug and I find him to be generally brilliant). But Disney removed that lion’s teeth. It’s the most boring vocal performance – and it doesn’t help that he’s completely outmatched on all sides. Simba’s the main character, but not the strongest one.

And then there is Beyonce as Nala. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is the worst song in the Disney cannon (I’m here to share opinions) and this version practically sound-mixes Glover out of it. He can’t be heard over Beyonce’s warbling.

Her performance/involvement irritated me more than anything else in the movie. The only new thing in this is a completely pointless spiritual Beyonce sings, which gives the impression of being a contractual obligation for maximum dollars. There’s no heart here (and it’s honestly a bit anachronistic). At one point, Nala turns to the lady lions behind her and practically says the line “fall into formation.” It’s for the fans, and I hope they love it, but my eyes nearly rolled clean out of my head.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumba absolutely steal the movie with the funniest scenes, practically breaking the fourth wall as they acknowledge they know what we came for – Hakuna Matata. Eichner is particularly excellent, adding a bit of good-natured shade throwing that moves Timon away from Nathan Lane‘s performance. Rogan gives Pumba a thicker skin and a little less obliviousness, and the two actors are absolutely charming together.

Seeing it on an IMAX screen is the way to go (and I’m not the person who generally advises things like this), to appreciate the insane talents of the animators and be terrified by how far the technology has come. That’s where this money-grabber is worth the cost of admission.

Kate Walz

Kate is a content-consuming pop-culture nerd. Her top 5 movies are: The Philadelphia Story, The Master, The Fountain, What About Bob and The Departed.

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