Film Review: The Lion King is beautiful to watch but lacks the full roar

We all know that Disney reworking its own animated films into “live action” remakes is purely for the box office dollars. Those of us old enough to remember the originals, having seen them in the cinema, and blasting the soundtracks into our subconscious and poring over every bit of dialogue, are all too aware. What we hope for is that these new remakes are just as enjoyable as the original. But there will always be a struggle for it to surpass, so where do you sit when it’s just acceptable and fine?

I am a The Lion King tragic, it will always be ranked in amongst my all time favourite movies. So my initial fear of this getting the remake treatment was somewhat relieved when I heard Jon Favreau was going to helm it. I loved what he did with The Jungle Book and felt assured this would at least be visually stunning, with maybe a few new tweaks thrown in. And 2019 The Lion King is as majestic and breathtaking and awe-inspiring as I’d hoped for. There are moments where the line feels blurred between fictional CGI animals and landscapes and National Geographic style nature documentary. Never has a CGI lion looked so goddamn believable, poor Aslan from Narnia would be so jealous. The opening montage of Simba’s presentation ceremony may as well be narrated by Sir David Attenborough it looks that ~real~. 

Donald Glover and Beyonce as the older Simba and Nala get an opportunity to showcase both their vocal acting and singing talents. When I had heard Billy Eichner was cast as Timon I was scared he would turn the quippy meerkat into a shouty nuisance but instead he completely won me over. Both he and Seth Rogen steal every scene their in as the dynamic “no worries” duo. Chiwetel Ejiofor certainly gets to deliver a dark and sinister turn but he doesn’t quite have the sass of Jeremy Irons. Returning James Earl Jones may deliver the dulcet tones, but feels like he’s phoning it in, with a couple of minor changes to his lines. And the hyenas, Florence Kasumba as Shenzi, Keegan-Michael Key as Kamari and Eric Andre as Azizi are lot less jokey fun than the original trio. The cast choices are solid, but somehow none of them are outstanding in their roles except for Eichner and Rogen. And the only thing I can think of that makes it feel like this, is because the dialogue is almost word-for-word identical to the original so it would take an extraordinary performance to truly stand out and feel fresh and unique. 

The musical numbers are pretty much all replicated here, with hits and misses too. “The Circle Of Life” is still magnificent, and “Hakuna Matata” is joyful and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is an utter delight. I even enjoyed the slight reworking of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. But there’s not much new with “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, whilst Ejiofor’s spoken word “Be Prepared” was a bit cringe-worthy and I never thought I’d get so angry about marimbas being excluded from a musical number but here we are. Whilst legendary composer Hans Zimmer gets to add a few new flourishes to his orchestral score, but not too many changes there either.  

Where I struggled the most with this film is the emotional beats. Maybe because the narrative and dialogue is so ingrained in my mind, that I’m anticipating it. So that when that tear-jerker gut-punch is meant to hit, it just doesn’t quite get me all the way. Yes I still got a little bleary eyed and weepy in that opening montage, or when Mufasa and young Simba have their father/son heart to heart, and obviously the tragedy with Mufasa. But not as ugly crying as I thought I would, which is generally what happens when I watch the original. 

This might be attributed to the fact that the anthropomorphic 2D animation tips you over emotionally just that little bit more. The animal expressions here aren’t quite able to give you that same deep empathetic resonance. It might also be that some of those moments feel rushed and not enough opportunity is given to linger on the pain or the joy. There’s also one moment relating to Simba’s realisation that he has to return to Pride Rock that has been altered that shocked me. 

Maybe if I had avoided watching the original animated film before seeing this I might have been slightly less picky about the final product. But to be honest the film is beautiful to watch and it still has some great musical moments. For a new generation watching it will be their own introduction to the story and may ring a little more with them than those who have such an attachment to the 1994 animation. This was always going to strain to compete with its predecessor but it’s a perfectly fine film to watch, so maybe introduce the kids to the animated one after seeing this.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

<i>The Lion King</i> releases in Australian cinemas from today through Disney Pictures Australia.

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