Of all the Disney live-action remakes so far, this is the one which has the least to say about. From a story and character standpoint, it changes almost nothing from original animated movie. No expanded sub-plots. No deeper character analysis. They even brought back James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Hans Zimmer, Elton John and songwriter Tim Rice for the soundtrack. As awesome as James Earl Jones is, he turns 90 next January. He’s starting to sound like he should have retired years ago. He’s been acting on Broadway since 1957, and started his film career in the early 60’s. I can’t help but think that Liam Neeson could have made a good Mufasa replacement.
Random fun fact – Jones’s father, Robert Earl Jones, was both an actor and a boxer. He lived to the age of 96.
This remake was announced in September of 2016, with Jon Favreau directing. Considering he did a great job with The Jungle Book, in addition to kicking off the MCU with Iron Man, he seemed like a good choice at the time. It didn’t take long to cast Donald Glover as Simba, who stole the show as Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and also portrayed Miles Morales’ uncle in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Beyoncé not only joined the cast as Nala soon after, but also assisted in reworking the soundtrack and sung the movie’s one original song, “Spirit”. Well, there’s another new song in the end credits, “Never Too Late”
It’s also worth noting that, as of right now, this is the last music project that Elton John will work on, as he announced a 3-year farewell tour in 2018 before his retirement. He’s 73 and has been making music since 1962, so he’s earned it.
(Scar is good in this movie, but he’s more fun in the original)
Other cast members include Seth Rogan as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon, Chiwetel Ejiofor (main character in 12 Years A Slave) as Scar, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi (Simba’s mother), John Kani as Rafiki (also played the Black Panther’s father in Civil War), and John Oliver as Zazu. There are some pretty big names in this cast, although one could say the same of the original.
Like The Jungle Book 2016, this movie relies heavily on CGI animation for the animals. In fact, the only shot in the entire film without some sort of CGI is the sunrise in the opening scene. To make it easier on the animators, they developed an AI to mimic animal movements instead of having the animators work every single animation manually. A lot of the environments were created with computers as well. They mostly scanned high definition photos of African landscapes and used software to turn them into 3D environments. They even developed software to imitate shaky-cam. All of this gave the movie a budget of at least $250 million, tying it with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as the 16th most expensive movie of all-time. Some estimates put the budget at $260 million, which would tie it with Tangled as the most expensive animated movie of all-time.
The results make for a visually impressive movie to be sure. As much as the environments are all digital, they look quite realistic if you focus on individual frames. Sadly when the motion kicks in, something feels off – I wouldn’t quite call it uncanny valley, but it often feels unnatural. As much as this movie is technically almost entirely animated, Disney still officially refers to it as live-action. It makes for a weird situation. If you consider it animated, then it is now officially the highest grossing animated movie of all-time, earning $1.6 billion world-wide. You would think they’d like to brag about that. It also currently sits at the 7th highest earning movie of all-time. Jurassic World is the only movie that earned more, but didn’t make it to the $2 billion mark.
However, the movie received a mediocre reception with critics, holding a 52% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 5.9/10. Most critics noted that the movie is too similar to its source material, while lacking the original’s sense of energy and enthusiasm. The performances behind Timon and Pumbaa are the only widely praised aspect of this movie, as they ad-libbed a lot of their new dialogue to put a fresh take into their characters.
As for myself, well … I enjoyed the movie overall, and by no means do I regret watching it, but I also kept thinking how the original did that scene better, or the soundtrack felt more epic back in 1993. I rewatched the original a couple of weeks later, and it confirmed all of these thoughts. It made for a situation where, while with most movie reviews I write, I watch the movie ahead of time – even if I’ve seen it dozens of times before. I didn’t need to with this one. I watched it back in September, and rewatching a couple clips and side by side song comparisons on YouTube is all I needed to come up with enough material for this blog post.
As visually impressive as this movie is, going for an ultra-realistic look also robs the characters of a lot of their expression. Traditional animation allows for a lot of exaggerated expressions that really helped sell the characters in the original. Here they are expressionless – even more so than real animals. There are also a number of shots that don’t even show their faces, instead vouching to show two characters talking from behind. This is especially bad with the musical numbers. The lack of lip movement and bouncing along to the beat robs the songs of any sense of energy. In the original Hakuna Matata sequence, they’re bouncing their tail ends, interacting with the environments, and leaning in close to each other for the “It’s our problem free philosophy” line. In the remake, they just walk. The animation also feels weightless. You’d think there would be some sort of thump, or vibrations in the ground when an adult Simba bounces, just like when a 500 pound lion lands in real life, but there’s nothing. Not even a sound.
(As good as the remake looks, the original is just more fun to look at)
The soundtrack also feels inferior. The original felt straight up epic in all the big moments, which is normal for a Zimmer soundtrack. The remake often trades the epic sounds for a soundtrack that uses various traditional African instruments. That in itself is not a problem; in fact some people may prefer that style of sound. But it also loses a lot of its edge. I’m sure there would be a way to stick with the African instruments while also enhancing the epic feel, in fact there are plenty of fan edits on YouTube that do just that. If they did that, I would be arguing that the remake’s soundtrack was superior. The stretched running time also slows down some of the themes to match the slower pace of the action, most notably the Stampede sequence. The slowed music kind of reduces the general sense of urgency, when a tense moment of silence probably would have worked better.
(It’s also worth noting that this movie is much less colourful than the original, not to mention real life. This is supposed to be a family movie – it should be colourful.)
The remake’s songs fared much better than Aladdin 2019’s songs did. The main problem here is that the animation sucks the life out of them. That said, there are three questionable changes they made. First, they turned “Be Prepared” into an almost entirely spoken sequence. Scar speaking the first verse or so does make it sound intimidating, but it should have turned into a song after that point. That kind of combination, slowly building into the epic villain song, could have been amazing. Especially since Ejiofor can sing quite well. Here’s a clip of him singing “I Want to be Evil” as a drag queen in Kinky Boots.
Another bizarre choice is that “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, while sung well in this version, takes place at day. It just makes the entire song feel wrong. Beyoncé’s “Spirit”, while good, doesn’t feel like it belongs in the main movie. Yet it’s played in the background while Simba is racing back home to confront Scar. Meanwhile, “He Lives In You”, a song originally created for the Broadway musical, plays at the start of the end credits. These probably should have been flipped. In case you haven’t heard that masterpiece, here’s a version by Peter Hollins featuring the current cast from the Broadway show.
“He Lives In You” also appears in the surprisingly good straight-to-video sequel, The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride.
Overall, The Lion King (2019) isn’t a bad movie, but there are so many subtle ways that it’s vastly inferior to the original. There are so many minor things that you might not consciously notice, yet your brain can tell that something is off. Something just doesn’t work right in almost every scene of the movie. I never felt that while watching the remake of The Jungle Book. There are plenty of other reasons, but I don’t care enough to get into them. Just stick with the original. It’s got more energy, more sense of passion, better pacing, and when “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” is playing, it’s actually night time.
(Also again, it’s just more fun to look at)
They recently announced that Mulan is going to first release on Disney +, but that you need to pay $30 on top of the monthly fee. As much as I do intend to look at the Mulan remake, I’ll take a hard pass on paying an extra $30 for a digital only release. I did notice a couple of days ago that a Pixar movie released back in March that I completely missed, so I’ll hopefully be able to write a review on that soon. But as of this point, I’m not entirely sure where these movie reviews are going next. I have so many ideas, and no idea what to pick. So feel free to comment with theme month requests.
Hmm, come to think of it, I’ve looked at all the Harry Potter books on this blog already, and I’ve reference the movies several times since, but I haven’t actually looked at the movies. There’s an idea.