Written By: Kyla M. West
Alright. At this point, Disney should just hire me because this is getting ridiculous.
If you read my last review of the Disney live-action film, Aladdin (2019) you saw that I’d voiced a stance on staying open minded to the company’s resurrection of our beloved animated classics. The stipulation being, that is, that most of these live adaptations have brought a new twist to the storyline and gave us a fresh retelling of these classic tales. That, I could stomach. Yet I found it hard to know how I felt about the “live action” version of The Lion King (2019). Let’s break it down.
First of all, this movie probably has the most visually stunning animation I have ever come by – transcending Avatar (2009) by lightyears. It was clear that the animators paid critical attention to detail in most ways, from the diverse, radiant landscape of the Serengeti, to subtle mannerisms in the movement and behavior of the various wildlife on screen. We know that since the beginning of the company’s Classics series, the animation team has upheld rigorous dedication in studying live subjects to incorporate into film. This includes traveling to South America to immerse themselves in the cultures of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru for the production of Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). For the original The Lion King (1994) masterpiece, they brought in a live lion cub to the studio to study its behavior and movements before young Simba was standing in the spotlight.
Animators did right by the original film by vividly bringing Nala’s blue-green eyes to life, and gave us nearly a scene-for-scene recapitulation of the “Circle of Life” sequence from the original opening. Between each animal looking remarkably real, Hans Zimmer taking the conductor’s stage again for his composition, and – did I mention this movie was an absolute ocular delight? I was biting-my-lip excited as we were building up to Simba’s presentation. As the screen panned over Pride Rock, Mufasa and Serabi affectionately nuzzled each other with the classic cat head-smush; a near tangible effect with the quality animation. Rafiki swapped his use of a juice-filled gourd for a more logical source, a dry root, to mark the newborn prince. As Rafiki made his way up to the edge of Pride Rock, the music swelled, the crowd below pranced in celebration…and then the baboon sits his bare butt down before limply presenting Simba to the Serengeti.
My heart sunk. The most iconic scene from the entire film completely floundered. Millions of cat and dog owners have countless memories of lifting their furbabies to the sky in honor of this scene. And for what? Rafiki was fully capable of going bipedal later in the movie. If we’re worried about what is biologically possible, I would be surprised if an 80 pound male baboon would struggle to lift a 3 pound powder puff.
The Lion King (1994) sits high as one of the more theatrical films that Disney has produced. Not only for its musical prowess, but the vivacious theatrics during musical numbers. I admit, for live-action films, it’s clearly easier to incorporate an animation’s theatrics when the main characters are humans. Believe me, I get that. Yet the heart in this story is lost when you sacrifice such a core element of the film in an attempt to portray how a pair of “real” lion cubs could sing “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” while gallivanting through the Pridelands. I desperately wanted to see the screen turn into a palette of colors as soon as Simba pounced into the first beat of the song.
The most dramatic character in the entire original film was, without a doubt, Scar. It’s almost insulting to see actors now cast for roles when no amount of voice training will help them do any justice to the number. Instead, they change the song. Want to know how the complex and lyrical song “Be Prepared” was rewritten for 2019? Here are the lyrics: “Be prepaaaaared, be prepared…be prepared.” Over and over. Sure, Chiwetel Ejiofor lashed out about how his teeth and ambitions are bared, but there was almost no melody to the entire song. No lime green geothermal smoke, either, no marching hyenas to emphasize his corrupt leadership, no chorus sung from jagged rocks under a crimson crescent moon. The most theatrical character, his manipulative acting largely the basis for this story, was sadly left without a stage in this adaptation.
Now, it’s hard to say if they botched Timon and Pumbaa or not. To me, nearly no one can replace Nathan Lane (again, another wonderfully talented actor musically and theatrically). What we got with 2019’s film was a near-flamboyant meerkat with an insipid warthog. I didn’t find as much humor in their new jokes, and it just seemed that the energy was lacking for this dynamic duo. It was almost as if the actors couldn’t commit to the new roles or were being too cautious. And apparently their pop-culture references were tossed, too? Are we that worried about offending people that Timon can’t offer to dress in drag and do the hula? We’re talking about classic scenes, here, people! Even if kids these days won’t have a clue who Sidney Poitier is, I still think they could find zeal in “MR. PIIIIG!” and Taxi Driver (1976) mashup. That said, I will accept the replacement of these legendary quotes with creative references to other Disney movies – an Easter egg we were graced with to ease the pain.
Let’s back up a little in the story line, because I’m about to tell you about a mortal sin that really made this difficult to sit through. You probably know where I’m going, dear reader, and yes, I’m going there.
Mufasa’s death might as well have been in vain. If there was one thing that this film needed, it was emotion. Never have I seen such disparity in facial expression and tone to downright ruin a scene. We all know the story, right? Mufasa dies after an epic struggle to try and save his son (to Disney’s credit, I think the stampede scene was done expertly). But immediately following this perfect depiction from the original animation, which was so real you could almost smell the swarm of wildebeest, I found myself sitting uncomfortably in front of another gut-wrenching flop.
When Simba finds his father’s corpse in the sudden quiet of settling dust, the apparent need to stay realistic overrode the raw emotion that inherently fills this moment. Picture this: an extremely real looking lion cub, looking up at his incredibly real-looking uncle Scar, his young voice trembling as he pieces together the event. Sounds pretty much like the 1994 movie, with one huge exception. There was NO physical reaction to be found anywhere in 2019 Simba’s body language. Look – I know lions don’t actually have the anthropogenic features like sobbing or a trembling lower lip. But what lions do have are ears, brows, posture, limbs that could be draped across their face…um, hello! Everyone’s seen Narnia by now, haven’t they? I hate to say it, but Aslan probably had more emotion in his first scene than the lions of this 2019 adaptation of The Lion King had in the whole movie. There. I said it. Did they fire the guy who worked on Aslan’s animation or something?
Another near-sacreligious blunder in this film occurs when Simba returns to Pride Rock after his reunion with Nala. While I was equally unimpressed with nearly every part of the “He lives in you” scene with Rafiki (which was especially lacking since Simba never got sense literally knocked into him), Simba’s inspiration to find his way home is particularly significant to the film’s nostalgia. The montage of his journey sets the pace, and this scene had everything; stimulating transitions, the overlay of slow-motion animation, the synchrony of movement with the score, and not to mention the score itself – which, heck, is so significant, I know a girl who’s high school chorus did a cover of the song. And what do we get? Some new, weird, poppity, let’s-make-use-of-the-fact-that-we-hired-Beyonce song that replaces the emotional weight of this scene and just…ugh. If they really wanted to change anything about the soundtrack, then they should have looked to the Broadway show.
As a biologist and a total Disnerd, I wrestled with this adaptation. For as many things as I appreciated, there were just as many blunders that I couldn’t ignore. Unlike the majority of the live action remakes so far, The Lion King (2019) stayed pretty much on track with the original plotline without introducing enough novelty to the story. Changing a song or two, or a character’s personality doesn’t warrant enough of a twist to help me stay open minded, and I think that’s why I am so much more critical of this film than the others.
Even so, it was hard not to be awestruck by this landmark demonstration of animation. As I mentioned earlier, the stampede scene was exceptionally immersive, as was the scene where Simba clambers through the jungle to follow Rafiki to the reflection pool. I appreciated the new depth of visuals to show the circle of life, especially where we followed the tuft of lion hair as it passed through the Pridelands, eventually finding its way to Rafiki. I was also glad to see that both Lebo M. and Hans Zimmer returned to orchestrate the score.
At the end of the day, I think I owe this movie a re-watch. I had similar reservations about the new Beauty and the Beast (2017), but after I saw it a few more times, I ended up really enjoying the flick, changes and all. This new take on The Lion King (1994) may prove more challenging, seeing as the Disney magic was all but lost here. But hey, at least when mankind wipes out our native wildlife, we’ll have the technology to bring them back in some way.
And now for a public announcement:
GET OFF YA DAMN PHONES AT THE THEATER, PEOPLE. And if you absolutely MUST bring an infant to the show…then maybe parenting isn’t for you. Movies are loud, and young humans are sensitive and fussy, and probably aren’t enjoying the 85+ decibels coming at them.