Critically-acclaimed director, writer, and producer Jon Favreau oversees this photo-realistic remake of Disney’s 1994 animated feature The Lion King. The original film was directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, and written by trio Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton. This time around, in addition to Favreau taking over the director’s chair, newcomers Jeff Nathanson and Oscar-winner Brenda Chapman are the writers at the helm, drawing from some of the richest source material in Disney’s archives. Adding in fantastic voice acting talent from the likes of James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Beyoncé might lead one to expect a legendary epic that only further fleshes out and develops the Shakespearean lore of the 1994 classic. Unfortunately, 2019’s The Lion King leans far too heavily on nostalgia and ground-breaking visual effects. This remake may be fairly enjoyable at best, but forgettable at worst.
Based on the film’s marketing campaign, it was made known early on that it would certainly pay homage to the original and remain faithful to its spirit. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the story of The Lion King is one of family drama, political intrigue, and the acceptance of responsibility, all told through the eyes of Simba (Donald Glover), an anthropomorphic lion on the African savannah. He is the heir to the throne of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). But, Simba’s uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is characterized by jealousy, rage, and treachery. Scar feels betrayed by the throne’s successional hierarchy, and is willing to perform as many back-stabbing maneuvers as necessary to take the crown for himself. In an unforgiving world riddled with corruption and dishonesty, Simba must learn what it truly means to be a king, overcoming tumultuous internal and external conflicts which provide challenging opportunities for complex character growth and expansion. The 1994 version of this story used its 88-minute runtime to practical perfection, expertly crafting this narrative with masterful dexterity. The resonant themes and messages that it explored were balanced remarkably with the charm, wit, and adventurous spirit expected in a G-rated animated movie. With an extra 30 minutes added to the runtime for the 2019 remake, as well as a PG rating, there was so much potential for a deeper, more profound look at what made the original narrative so compelling. Perhaps side characters such as Simba’s love interest, the lioness, Nala (Beyoncé), might have been given more development and backstory. Or, the villainous motivations of Scar could have been examined. New scenes, plot threads, and story twists could have been thrown into the mix. But, the reality is that hardly any of this was the case.
To call this a “shot-for-shot remake” would be a bit of an exaggeration, but making this claim is definitely understandable considering the final product. The ultimate direction of the narrative is virtually identical to the original. A great deal of the same dialogue is reused, and opportunities for new jokes and humorous exploits are mostly squandered. It would have been one thing to pay tribute to certain pivotal moments and sequences from the 1994 film, but to fundamentally copy and paste these scenes comes across as drab and derivative. The additional half hour of footage is not utilized efficiently, with a general unsteadiness in pacing that subtracted from the overall viewing experience. Younger viewers in the target audience might even find themselves bored and unsatisfied in some of the slower, more methodically-paced sequences, and adult viewers will be disappointed by the rushed climax and lackluster payoff. Scenes from the original were unnecessarily prolonged and extended, rather than bringing a fresher and more unique take to the table. The sequences at the apex of the story which should have been filled with immense emotional weight and depth were hurried and abruptly concluded. Even certain editing transitions from one scene to the next felt unnatural and jarring in tone and the story’s progression, as if the filmmakers realized that they had to move faster to their destination. All of these elements were quite underwhelming facets of the film’s narrative style.
As for the movie’s soundtrack, the only distinction in the musical numbers are the voices singing them. The tone, rhythm, and beat of the music appear to be plucked straight from the original. This is a stark contrast to Disney’s most recent live-action remake, Aladdin, which featured Will Smith’s unmistakable charisma with the rap and pop style he brought to the music. The songs performed in that film displayed its worthiness of existing as a remake. Yet, this is a far cry from the matter in The Lion King. The original songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice for the 1994 film were basically recycled this time around, with very similar vibes and melodies. There was little of anything identifiably creative or artistic about the renditions in the remake, despite the fact that they were produced by modern visionary artist Pharrell Williams. The only notable innovation was the renewal of Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which actually won an Oscar for Best Original Song and a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1995. Donald Glover and Beyoncé, in their roles as the lion duo Simba and Nala, respectively, were given the freedom to inject their own voices, techniques, and musical expression into this song. Joining them was the pair of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, in their respective character roles as the wonderfully quirky warthog, Pumbaa and meerkat, Timon. Their collaborative performance on this track was one of the few memorable musical revitalizations in this film. Even Beyoncé’s new solo song, “Spirit,” feels shoehorned into the film, simply dropped over the action as a transitional tool. Elton John’s new track, “Never Too Late,” was of course riveting, but it was only played over the end-credits, rather than being integrated into the story itself. However, Hans Zimmer’s astounding score is a bit of a saving grace. In the 1994 original, Zimmer’s score won an Oscar, and he returned once again for the remake with a magnificently rejuvenated arrangement, expertly weaving together the signature classic themes with new variations and modifications. This comes as no surprise, considering the illustrious career and renowned work of Zimmer. Still, relying on an instrumental composer like Zimmer to carry the majority of the load in a musical is not a great formula for success.
In spite of the narrative’s bland reprocessing, the astonishing technological achievements of this film cannot be overlooked. The VFX team essentially digitally recreated an entire African savannah with virtual reality sets and game engines. Jon Favreau scouted out locations in Africa, and worked closely with the animators, visual effects wizards, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel on the virtual sets to ensure that his vision came to light. If there is one thing Favreau has proved as a director, it is that he has a tight grip on the latest technical advancements and progressions in the film world. In his 2016 directorial effort on the live-action remake of The Jungle Book, Favreau’s VFX crew, led by Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, and Dan Lemmon, came out with an Oscar victory. It would come as no shock to see a similar outcome this awards season. Legato, Valdez, and Jones are all back working with Favreau on The Lion King, also joined by Elliot Newman, another CG supervisor from The Jungle Book. Production designer James Chinlund and virtual production supervisor Ben Grossman, as well as supervising art directors Vlad Bina and Helena Holmes, also deserve applause and recognition for their stellar efforts. The group of sound mixers and editors likewise produced fantastic work in their development of the audible ambiance of the African wilderness. Still, even in the midst of the marvelous visuals, breathtaking cinematography, and other technical phenomena, there are still detractive factors to be found in the digital animation. Rather than incorporating motion-capture technology, the animals are all completely CGI, including their faces and mouths. For one reason or another, there is a lack of augmentation of believable expressions and mannerisms in the characters. This was also slightly distracting as the animals delivered their dialogue. The motion of their mouths did not quite align with the words being spoken. Whereas Favreau’s The Jungle Book did employ motion capture technology, he chose to stray from that route with The Lion King. Even though the VFX artists, animators, and character designers crafted a nearly impeccable digital world, the lack of motion capture was obvious at certain points. This was more of a directorial decision than anything else, and a questionable one at that.
Had this been the world’s very first introduction to the story of The Lion King, then this film would have been viewed in a much more positive light. The satisfactory execution of a profound Shakespearean story depicted through a kingdom of animals is no easy task. But at the end of the day, this remake brings little of anything contemporary to the table besides the spectacular visuals, deftly crafted supporting technical aspects, and glorious score from Hans Zimmer. It is undoubtedly worth a watch for the cinematic experience, but beyond that, it is likely a film that will be remembered for its unabashed duplicative properties.
Director: John Favreau
Writers: Jeff Nathanson and Brenda Chapman; Characters Created by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Producers: Jon Favreau, Karen Gilchrist, Tom Peitzman, Thomas Schumacher, Jim Shampoon, Mario Zvan, John Bartnicki, Debbi Bossi, Jeffrey Silver, and David Venghaus Jr.
Starring (Voice Talent): Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Amy Sedaris, Chance the Rapper, Josh McCrary, Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Phil LaMarr, and J. Lee