Disney’s 2019’s The Lion King photorealistic CGI animated film is a perfectly serviceable remake of the iconic Disney 1994 2D animated The Lion King. The story and tunes is all there as The Lion King has a good bedrock foundation that is hard to completely screw it up. Visually, the look of 2019’s Lion King is quite impressive as the CGI realistic animation goes for basically tricking the audience into thinking they’re watching live action. Although by going for “realism” in animation it has the odd effect of draining the energy the original film had. The end result is decent as a technical demo of CGI VFX foisted on top of The Lion King framework. It makes for an okay movie but makes the original that much more vibrant.
At Pride Rock, the Lion King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only returning cast from the original) presents his new son, Simba (JD McCrary), the heir to the throne. This displeases Simba’s bitter uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants to be king. Simba learns about life from his dad while frolicking with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and ignoring the jabbering of the king’s assistant, Zazu (John Oliver). All comes crashing down when Scar takes control of the kingdom, leaving Simba alone and exiled until he meets the funny warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) who teach him to have no worries for the rest of his days. Years pass and the grown up Simba (Donald Glover) enjoys his carefree life until the grown up Nala (Beyonce) tells him that Scar and his crew of hyenas are running the kingdom. So Simba and his buddies return to Pride Rock so he can claim his rightful throne.
Animated movies have pretty much done away with musical numbers but since this is basically a copy and paste job of ‘94’s Lion King the musical numbers are back. But by striving for realism in the visuals it loses the pep of an animated musical number. A huge the difference between the visual styles of the two films is the number “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”. In the original film, it bounces between different colours and emotive expressions from the 2D animation. In the song in 2019’s Lion King, the animals are supposed to look “real” so they’re limited in what they can do. The colours never turn psychedelic and at the end of the song since they’re supposed to look like real lions they can’t open their mouths wide to hit that high note so instead they just sort of drop their mouths open. It’s a weird image. Not that the lions singing doesn’t look real but instead it looks so real it drains the life out of the performance. Elton John co-wrote the original tunes so the songs are still solid and Hans Zimmer returns to the score and delivers something appropriately sweeping.
Even though the attempt at realism drains emotiveness from the characters, the depth of the VFX is astounding. Every animal, bug, blade of grass, cloud in the sky and more is rendered in painstaking detail. The look of Scar is a scrawny thing that seems to exist on pure bile. Ejiofor conveys bitterness seething into all of his lines. Scar’s big song “Be Prepared” is not quite as bombastic as the original, here he talks more than he sings, but it still has a menacing vibe. It could have been improved if they just went full Death Metal and had Scar rip out a guitar solo.
There is a cavalcade of stars rounding out the voice cast and everyone does a solid job. Jones is still great as Mufasa as his voice has a sense of history. Oliver’s high strung chatty bird gets in a few solid yuks. The jump from perky kid Simba to adult Simba is cool and gives the story a sense of history. Kid Simba seems genuinely nice and when he loses his dad it has dramatic power and Glover has a solid performance as adult Simba. Nala is still sort of dull character either as a kid or an adult.
As in the original, the best characters are Timon and Pumbaa because they seem like they stepped out of a completely different movie. They add much needed levity in a story that can get serious. Eichner and Rogen play it really loud which works. In one of the few, self-aware changes, a line from the original “Hakuna Matata” song has Pumba going “I got downhearted every time I-” and Timon cuts him off with “Not in front of the kids!” Here it is changed to Pumba going “Every time I … farted… aren’t you going to stop me?!” “No, you disgust me!” It’s minor and only people who know the original would get it but the movie could have used more originality added.
The Lion King is both a spectacular FX achievement and shackled by its insistence on realism so it never quite soars. Still, even if it’s a little stale, the story, music and performances are all great. It certainly won’t replace the original as the definitive telling of The Lion King but it makes for an interesting, if only slightly successful, experiment.