The circle of (CGI) life.
Let this be a lesson to Disney and any other media conglomerates in the future: just because something worked well the first time doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work every time after. Sure, when Jon Favreau directed the live-action Jungle Book remake in 2016, it garnered critical acclaim, grossed over $966 million at the box office, and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, with many viewers claiming that it was even better than the original. With The Jungle Book’s success in mind, Disney thought they could probably give The Lion King the same treatment and get the same result two times over.
Ah, but here’s the thing: The Jungle Book is consistently considered to be solidly mid-tier in terms of the old-timey Disney animated movies. It’s enjoyable enough, but it pales in comparison to the likes of Bambi, Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King, meanwhile, embodies everything great about Disney, from its colorful characters and animation to its vibrant and lively music all the way to its serious and dramatic storyline. The Lion King is widely considered to be Walt Disney’s greatest animated movie of all time – and rightfully so.
Much of the storyline is the same between both adaptations. In both movies, Simba (Donald Glover) is the son of the “Lion King” Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and the prince of the Pride Lands, the kingdom which his father oversees. As prince, Simba is destined to one day grow up, take his father’s place, and become the king over the Pride Lands and the animals who reside there.
However, there is another pining for Mufasa’s throne. Mufasa’s younger brother, a dirty, rugged, and unruly lion named Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was the first in line for the throne before Simba was born. Now consumed with jealousy and greed for the throne, Scar hatches a scheme to take away the throne from both Simba and Mufasa – and neither will like what he has planned for either of them.
Since this movie revisits so many of the plot beats from the first Lion King, this movie is more of a shot-for-shot re-skin to the original than a remake in its own right. As such, the visual effects are crucial in making this movie work, since so much of its appeal relies heavily on how it looks compared to its animated counterpart. So here’s the million-dollar question: how good does The Lion King look?
The short answer is pretty freaking fantastic. Like The Jungle Book, The Lion King uses photorealistic techniques to bring these CGI animals to life, behaving and moving on-screen as if you’re peering through the glass of an exotic zoo. Every time Mufasa let out a loud, ear-piercing roar, Zazu (John Oliver) spread out his petite little wings to fly, or Rafiki (John Kani) trotted along in the trees, bushes, and savannah, it felt like real animals were in front of you making these movements. The Jungle Book was revolutionary for its time by impressively digitally recreating animals and their behaviors, and The Lion King succeeds in executing many of the same techniques to give its animals a genuine, natural feel to them. If you compare the original Lion King with the remake side-by-side and ask which one looks more realistic, it isn’t even a competition: the remake wins.
But with its realistic computer graphics comes an unexpected consequence: now because the animals look so realistic, the animals can’t express as much as they could in the original. Neither could they in The Jungle Book remake, but that movie had one key element to it that The Lion King does not have: Neel Sethi. With him being one of the few human actors in The Jungle Book, he was able to play his emotions off of the animals and demonstrate genuine expressions of joy, intimidation, grief, sadness, anger, happiness, and excitement. Sure, the animals’ faces were mostly stoic and one-note, but then again they weren’t required to demonstrate expression: Neel was. He pulled off a decent enough job to where we could appreciate the rest of the technical craft behind The Jungle Book’s wild characters.
The Lion King does not have a human actor to anchor the film’s drama or emotions. What we’re left with, then, is an entire reliance on the animals and their limited facial expressions. That’s a problem because they don’t express much of anything throughout the film, despite the voice cast obviously giving it their all. It’s very awkward to watch Mufasa suddenly snap from angry to happy while playing with Simba in the Pride Lands without his facial cues to clue us in on his mood. A few accentuations to his facial animations would have helped with that. Would it be inaccurate to the real-life physiology? Yes, but at least we wouldn’t be as removed from the character personally.
I mentioned the voice actors. Some of them deliver brilliant vocal performances, such as Donald Glover and Beyonce as the elder Simba and Nala respectively. The minute Glover pops out and sings his heart out with “Hakuna Matata,” or when they harmonize during “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, it immediately fills you with chills and goosebumps at how beautiful they sound together. Anytime they shared dialogue or a musical number, I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more from them (even if “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was annoyingly sung in the DAYTIME).
Other voice performances lack the raw and visceral punch that Glover and Beyonce bring. For instance, Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, and his performance was so meek and wimpy that he sounds more like Jafar from Aladdin than he does Scar. Hugh Jackman was rumored to play Scar early on while casting was still under consideration, and I can’t tell you how much better it would have been if I heard Wolverine’s snarly voice seething between Scar’s teeth. The hyenas, played by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are fine but lack the wacky personalities of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings. Seth Rogan is especially cringe-worthy as Pumbaa. He’s funny enough whenever he’s just bantering with Billy Eichner’s Timon, but have him start singing “Hakuna Matata” and your ears are guaranteed to start bleeding within minutes.
Overall, The Lion King is an enjoyable, albeit inconsistent, remake. I did enjoy seeing my favorite Lion King characters up on the big screen once again, and I did like seeing the new visual style applied to some of them. But the larger film as a whole does not work as well as the animated movie did, but what else did you expect? Some movies were not made to be interchangeable with live-action. Yeah, you could technically adapt movies such as The Incredibles, Up, and Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse into live-action. But with all of the bright colors, beautiful animation, and vivid visual style, why would you ever want to?
I know three things for certain. 1) The Oscar-worthy visual effects helps this movie as much as it hurts it. 2) Donald Glover and Beyonce are hands-down the best things that could have happened to this picture. 3) Seth Rogan should never attempt to sing again in his career, ever. And for the love of God, please sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in the evening next time.