The Lion King (2019)
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Well, if you remember from my review of the live-action Aladdin, Disney, over the past couple of years, started to get into a bad habit of constantly touching up some of their own animated classics and remaking them for the live action format. Unsurprisingly, many people reacted to such news with groans, thinking for good reason that Disney was on creative fumes. But I think the controversy surrounding those remakes was made even more feverish when the live action Lion King came into the spotlight.
Yep. Once again, another one of my favorite movies of all time has been given the live-action treatment. But what this movie did was bad enough to put me on the same boat as everyone else in terms of Disney needing more creative talents. Let’s hop in and see what this movie did wrong, shall we?
Now, the first thing I will say about the movie is that the photorealistic CGI is flat out stunning. Whoever did the effects really did their homework in studying the movements of the local African animals. Even some of the animals who were of a slightly vague species, like Rafiki – was he a baboon? A mandrill? Maybe a mix of both? It’s hard to tell – his movements flawlessly resembled that of a monkey. And, standard as they are, even some of the locations looked really nice. I can’t quite put my finger at the moment on whether these were really live-action shots or just completely computer renditioned shots – for all I know, it could be both – but they still flourished in the movie with a sense of natural beauty and even a little atmosphere every once in a while. Oh my! Unlike the Aladdin remake, this is definitely something I can see getting some recognition at the Oscars soon.
Yet, like the Aladdin remake, there was one location that missed its mark in the most humiliating ways. In this case, it’s the Elephant Graveyard.
When Simba and Nala ventured into the Elephant Graveyard, it didn’t even look like a graveyard. Aside from a few skeletal remains here and there, the crevices, columns, and mud pits made this look more like the outer edges of a volcano, whereas the Elephant Graveyard in the original lived up to its name by having skeletal elephant remains everywhere. I mean, it wasn’t called an Elephant Graveyard for nothing.
The songs were brought over from the original movie, and once again, they were not sung with as much passion as in the original film. In fact, one of the biggest changes made onto one of the songs was that Be Prepared, Scar's song, was shortened. That just felt ridiculous; why trim down what was already a massive, sinisterly satisfying song? That perfectly established who Scar was and why he sought the throne. Here, it felt like it covered only a portion of Scar's purpose before just shrugging it off and moving onward with the movie.
But my issues with the movie don't stop there. There are three big problems with this movie, and altogether, they felt more harmful to their own movie than the flaws of the Aladdin remake were to theirs.
One was, in the movie’s attempt to be quote-on-quote ‘realistic’, down to the CGI, it resulted in the movie feeling too ‘serious’ and not ‘serious and funny’ enough. Even though it had some funny moments, there were times when the humor felt muddled, misplaced, or nonexistent. In fact, as I watched the Lion King remake play out as excessively serious and somewhat numbed down as it was in the theater, it actually got to a point where I almost missed the sillier elements of the original movie.
In the song, Hakuna Matata, when Pumbaa was still singing about his bleak life, he just reached the verse, “every time that I...” only to complete the verse by saying ‘farted‘. Not only did it drag a little, but ironically, the method that the original film took on it – that being when Timon quickly silenced Pumbaa when he was about to complete the verse – was better and much funnier.
Pumbaa: And, oh the shame
Timon: He was ashamed
Pumbaa: I thought of changing my name
Timon: Oh, what's in a name?
Pumbaa: And I got downhearted
Timon: How does it feel?
Pumbaa: Every time that I...
Timon: Hey, Pumbaa! Not in front of the kids!
Pumbaa: Oh, sorry.
Also, the Lion Sleeps Tonight sequence. That was a (somewhat) quirky little scene with Timon and Pumbaa singing the song before the neighboring animals joined in to sing along before being abruptly interrupted by the scavenging Nala. Something about that scene just felt like it lasted longer than it should have, and that the way it played out in the original was just fine: Timon and Pumbaa just sang a couple verses, then slowly stopped as Pumbaa hungrily followed a rhino beetle before running into Nala. The dose of comedy slowly transitioning into uneasy suspense and then into predator-prey-oriented action just felt perfect and properly placed.
There was another scene where Timon, in an attempt to lure the hyenas away, took a cue from Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast and presented Pumbaa to them both with a mock French accent and even to the beginning tunes of Be Our Guest. That was not a bad attempt, but it was nowhere as spontaneous or as extravagantly humorous as when Timon presented Pumbaa to the hyenas in a hula suit. Despite it occurring in the midst of an otherwise crucial, tense return to Pride Rock, the humorous exaggeration of that scene was just too good, and it’s a shame nothing could’ve been put together to match the creative, extravagant humor of that scene for a live-action setting.
Also, I see that this movie tried to make Rafiki a more shaman-like character than in the original one. I found it problematic because one, he already was a shaman in the original one, anyway. And two, his wisecracks and his purposeful, if not instinctive, buffoonery in the original film not only went hand in hand with his simian characteristics, but those were what made him such a unique character, as far as shaman archetypes go.
Finally, there was one moment where the strand of Simba's hair that would eventually have flown off to Rafiki got caught in the tongue of a giraffe and later came out stuck to a ball of giraffe dung before continuing to fly off. Did that really need to be there?
Now, I’ll bet that you’re thinking, what’s the story for this movie? Well, that is my next big problem with the movie:
A lion cub named Simba was preparing to be the next king of the Pride Lands when his jealous uncle Scar murdered his father, Mufasa, banished him, and took over as king. During then, Simba took refuge with Timon and Pumbaa, and as he grew up, some of Simba’s old friends started arriving to tell Simba to return so he could claim the throne that is rightfully his.
What do do I find problematic about It? Well, I’ve heard many people say that it’s bad when an adaptation deviates too much from the source material. With The Lion King 2019, it proved that it is just as problematic if it followed the source material too well. It was too by-the-book in its story approach, and the result is a shot-by-shot, nearly beat-by-beat reiteration of an already familiar story. So shot-by-shot, in fact, that some of scenes from the movie, including the famous Circle of Life opening sequence, are basically the same scenes recycled from the original movie, albeit in a live-action makeover.
My disgust with this practice lies in the fact that even though it’s a remake of a classic story with a new cast, writer, and director, it never bothered to do its own thing with the story outside of the CGI. It never bothered to deviate from the story in ways that would've shown that it’s faithful to the original while still spicing things up by adding something new of its own to the mix, which was something the Aladdin remake at least attempted to do. Dalia, anyone?
The only new thing I can remember it pulling off was adding in more animals who lived with Timon and Pumbaa because they also believed in the Hakuna Matata philosophy and also dreaded Simba because of the likelihood that they could’ve been his next lunch. As valiant as that was, it didn’t feel like it was enough to make a lasting impact on the movie. They were just shown to us in one or two scenes and then they were sidelined not too long after. Because of that, it didn’t feel as memorable a change as Dalia was for the Aladdin remake.
The third problem with the movie is also what I have the biggest issues with, moreso than the recycled plot. While I still stand that the looks and movements of the animals as conveyed with the photorealistic CGI were marvels to look at, it came at a huge, huge cost. Just think for a minute and try to remember if you noticed something missing on any of the animals, anything at all.
Or, you could just look at the next pair of side-by-side clips and see for yourself.
If you still haven’t figured it out, I’ll tell you: the animals conveyed no emotion.
Aside from the lions crinkling their faces when they got irritated or angry, or the fact that their vocal emotions were mostly adequate or right on cue, the animals never visually expressed how they were feeling in any given moment. When they were happy, they never looked happy. When they were afraid, they barely looked afraid, etc. Not only did this feel eerily out of place, but it resulted in a disassociation between us, the viewers, and the characters. We were never given a chance to empathize with them depending on how they were feeling, and at some point, I couldn’t have even told who was who, particularly with Nala, Sarabi, and the other lionesses whenever they were together.
And if that's not bad enough, I feel like the scenes where Simba found his father's corpse in the gorge, and the scenes with the lionesses and Nala hearing the news of Mufasa’s and Simba‘s (alleged) deaths, were where the movie was the guiltiest of that mistake. Simba and Nala were expressive in their voices, like I said, but their faces almost remained still whenever I saw them on screen. I didn’t even see a single tear roll down either of their cheeks. And this reaction from Zazu and the pride about Mufasa’s and Simba‘s deaths?
Yeah, I don’t remember seeing any of that from them in the live action version.
That, the way I see it, is the power of animation: it can take something like objects or animals and make us really emphasize with them as easily as we would emphasize with other people.
But now, outside of the CGI, there were two things I admired about The Lion Ling 2019. One was the fact that Nala and Sarabi were both given a little more screentime and involvement. We got to see more of what happened in the Pride Lands while Simba was still living with Timon and Pumbaa, and it was neat to see them both attempt to rebel against Scar‘s reign, especially Nala, who was the most resentful of the rulership and successfully escaped to find help. I would say this was a new addition to the movie, but I think we already saw that in the Broadway musical, so I guess it doesn’t count.
The other one, and one I actually have the deepest and most flabbergasted admiration for, is that it brought back James Earl Jones to voice Mufasa. He still carried the booming power and moderate tenderness that I remembered from the original movie. It would’ve been like bringing Robin Williams back to play the Genie for the Aladdin remake if he was still alive; it really goes to show that some actors were born to play specific roles that other actors may not top. So it was touching to see the Disney crew acknowledge that there would be no other actor like Jones to play Mufasa. At the same time, however, I caught a little staleness in his voice. I don’t know if it was the age, or what have you, but with all due respect for Jones, he didn’t provide Mufasa's voice with as much resonance as he did in the original.
Before I forget, you remember what I said about the Disney live-action remake craze reaching a feverish pitch starting with the movie? Well, here's the reason why: the use of the photorealistic CGI was so extensive, that it let to debates on whether this even counted as a live action movie. Wherever I went, the general description of the movie was that it was a photorealistic computer-animated remake of The Lion King and not a live action version of the movie. Even as it dethroned Frozen in the box office, it quickly became described "the highest-grossing animated film of all time". The more I think about it, I'm afraid this might be true, as Dinosaur (2000), one of the films in the Disney Animated Canon, employed a similar use of photorealistic CGI to achieve its intended effect.
As a matter of fact, as I saw The Lion King 2019, you know what I hoped the intent behind the very impressive CGI was going to be? So that it would be perfected, with The Lion King being used as its platform, in the event that other movies that could use such similar CGI would put it to good use. Won't that be something?
Until then, I can say without a doubt that The Lion King 2019 has done a real disservice to the original Lion King. It downgraded almost everything that made the original such a beloved masterpiece, and the lack of emotions deprived this movie of any connectivity it could've achieved with its audiences. Dare I say it, it makes this movie feel like the Scar to the original's Mufasa; it's an obvious cash-grab from beginning to end with mostly artificial results.
Step up your Hakuna Matata A-game and don't even bother with this movie.
– Something else I noticed was missing in this movie – and ironically, this is not one of those sillier aspects – was the discussion between Simba and Rafiki about learning from the past as opposed to running from it. That left me with some vague impressions over what convinced Simba to return to Pride Rock. Did the idea that Mufasa, though dead, would never leave him just automatically convince Simba to return, as if by instinct alone? That's yet another reason why the original version pulled this one off better: not only did Simba have to learn from the mistakes of his past and confront it under Rafiki's advice, but Rafiki, Nala, and Mufasa's spirit coming to Simba served a purpose that way: all it would've taken for Simba to return was a little push from each of them.
– The good news is, next year, Disney intends to release THREE original animated films to theaters: Onward, Soul, and Raya and the Last Dragon. This leaves me with the hope that the creativity of Disney hasn't completely died, and that it was just put under wraps for the time being until it is allowed to break free again to entertain with all its might. Not to mention that all the money Disney is making off of all those remakes will be put to good use on developing even more original movies like these. Fingers crossed!