Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef, The Jungle Book)
Starring Beyoncé; Donald Glover; James Earl Jones; Chiwetel Ejiofor;
John Oliver; Billy Eichner; Seth Rogen .
I don’t know why most people go to the movies. I can make an educated guess that it is to
be entertained, swept up into a world or a story that offers a unique perspective on life. I
guess pure popcorn mouth-stuffing fun can be reason enough, yet I can’t help but wonder if
an industry that labels itself as an art-form should strive for a deeper meaning. This is
impossible of course as being so inexorably linked to ‘makin’ dat dollar’ means that playing
to an audience’s base desires is in the big studio’s best interests.
Which leads me to the 2019 remake of The Lion King, the latest hollow Disney “live-action”
remake that is as devoid of any soul as expressions on a lion’s face.
What is the end goal of creating something we saw perfected in 1994 other than to suck out
as much money as possible using the biggest nostalgia vacuum of the 21st century? Like
many people in their mid-twenties, (I assume) I grew up watching and re-watching the
original Lion King, its simplistic majesty sweeping me away to an African plain where animals
with British accents sung wonderful, heart-warming tunes.
It should be made clear I have a deep seated love for The Lion King. It was released the year
of my birth, it was one of the first movies I can remember seeing and the songs are seared
onto my brain for the rest of my life. It would be a fair point to make that I could not
possibly discuss this film in an objective way but I would counter that with the question...
can anyone? How can someone who has even a slim knowledge and history with movies
discuss Jon Favreau’s take on The Lion King without drawing from the original? The original
film is a pop culture touchstone for anyone who likes movies and so remaking it invites
comparison, whether that is wanted or not.
Not that this 2019 version is lacking in spectacle. In fact, each individual shot is positively
bulging with stunningly rendered detail, the environments were all created on a computer
and it is near impossible to tell. The vistas are breathtaking, draped in beams of sunlight or
shimmering pools of water. The animals are so photo-realistic there were moments during
the film I could fully visualise what they would feel like, how the fur would race through my
fingers as I watched Mufasa’s mane ripple in the wind. The attention to detail is something
to behold, even the way each different species moves is inscrutable from their real life
counterparts. Jon Favreau and his team of visual effects artists have created a visually
arresting world and should have endless praise heaped upon them.
Where the film falters is in its feeble attempts to recapture what made its predecessor so
brilliant. I was slightly taken aback by how many lines of dialogue were directly ripped from
the 1994 script. Hearing them repeated by a string of actors who were probably paid more
than double than the original cast with slight alterations in delivery just reminded me of the
first time they were said, 25 years ago. To put it in metaphorical terms, would you rather
pay to see your favourite band live or pay a little bit more to watch their cover band?
Where this cover band succeeds on its own is in the bickering duo of Timon and Pumbaa,
voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen respectively. While not surpassing the original pairing
of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, Eichner and Rogen make the characters their own. While
they are on screen you can feel the constricting leash of the Disney overlords loosen just a
little. The fluidity and playfulness of their conversations have an improvisational feel,
creating a sense that they were in the same sound booth while recording their lines, giving
them the ability to bounce off one another. The rest of this star studded voice cast is what is
certainly driving the large box office haul, with John Oliver’s Zazu and James Earl Jones’
Mufasa being a stand out, although we of course knew that Earl Jones would nail it because
it he did that 25 years ago! The rest of the cast feel as if they were rushed to the nearest
recording studio and were handed the first draft of the original film.
Re-reading that last paragraph and realising I praised the only white men in a predominately
black voice cast leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It is definitely not the fault of Beyoncé
(Nala), Donald Glover (Simba) or anyone else, they were merely tasked to bring life to words
already cemented in cinematic history. It just feels like Disney is trying to warm up a dish
that I already enjoyed and digested years ago. My personal biggest let downs are the new
portrayals of Scar and Rafiki. Jeremy Iron’s original lion baddie had a sneering hiss to his
speech, dripping with sarcasm to barely hide his utter contempt for his brother and while
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar certainly has a gravely presence, he never managed to capture my
full attention. Rafiki on the other hand is zapped of all his crazy personality and is
downgraded to an old man muttering at himself while looking at the stars, the zany energy
replaced with the tired trope of the old wise watcher.
The biggest problem with this modern day version is its lack of a beating heart. That can be
boiled down to the fact that in striving for a realistic looking movie, Favreau had to ensure
that everything looked like it would in our world which means stripping any emotion from
the faces of his characters. The lions simply do not emote, their passive faces betraying the
soullessness of the whole affair. Think of Simba’s utter shock in 1994 when the camera
pushes in on him as the herd of wilder beasts bears down on him, his mouth falling open as
his eyes widen in complete fear. All that emotion is replaced by an unreadable CGI lion,
relying on the voice actor to carry the weight of the supposed emotion.
To be mad at this 2019 version simply because it is the same as the original is not a position
to easily defend, after all this story is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to begin with. What
does grind my gears is that fact that Disney will continue to rake in the millions of dollars by
riding the wave of nostalgia until the beach dries up. Whatever emotions the 2019 Lion King
stirs in its audience is not earned, it is simply the memories of a more lovingly crafted movie
filling in the cracks.