The live action Disney remake juggernaut continues on to a revisiting of 1994’s The Lion King. In this case, a version very faithful to the original; it’s not only the presence of James Earl Jones that will ring familiar. Of course, it’s merely a different form of animation, with a photo-realistic version of the material – probably a more appropriate term than “live action”, given that, unlike The Jungle Book, there are no human characters; all speaking parts are rendered in a computer. That said, so are much of the run-times of many superhero and fantasy films that we consider live action.
Let’s get a small detail out of the way early. The Lion King (1994) was a relatively thin film. It kept things simple, with parts of the film – such as Simba in exile – playing very short indeed. It’s considered top-line Disney arguably because it followed 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and hence, represented a studio at one of its historic peaks. Add to that the voice of the legendary James Earl Jones, and a well remembered Elton John/Tim Rice collaboration, and suddenly the film itself becomes more iconic than it may have deserved. It’s a good film, but is it honestly as good as you remember?
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The 2019 film tells the same story. Young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary, in childhood; Donald Glover as an adult) is born as heir to ruling Pride Land King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Raised with an understanding of his destiny to rule, Simba is forced into exile as his paternal Uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor replacing the, well, irreplaceable Jeremy Irons) murders Mufasa, then manipulates Simba into taking responsibility and fleeing. In exile, he meets meerkat and warthog, Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan), who raise him, then provide friendship in adulthood. Found as an adult by childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) – and the lioness to whom he was intended to be betrothed – Simba learns Scar’s reign as king is devastating the Pride Lands (his actions an over- farming metaphor). He must decide whether to accept his destiny and return home to take his place in the Circle of Life.
Watching The Lion King (2019) is a little like watching Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake: the constant wondering what exactly is the point. Where that film added literal colour to a black and white original – along with some wildly ill-judged sexual content – this is doing much the same (minus the sexual content, of course): putting the same content in a slightly different format, with tiny additions to the running time. In this case, unlike Norman Bates masturbating, the changes neither add nor substantially subtract anything from the core experience. The Jungle Book remake at least changed the ending. It also varied settings, whereas the cartoon had been animated, in places, like a 2D side-scroller, as, for all its storytelling quality and terrific voice work, that film was made during one of Disney’s less lavish periods. With The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau – helmer of both remakes – managed to put a new spin on virtually identical material. Here, there is no new take.
So comparing the two versions becomes about the differences in detail. First of all, the voice work. We were denied a full Coming to America reunion for Simba’s parents, due to the passing away of Madge Sinclair. Alfre Woodard stands in as Sarabi. For the main players, most are performing about as well as their 1994 equivalents: John Oliver is less distracting than Rowan Atkinson as Zazu, staying more inside the material, but capturing the same, fussy air; Donald Glover is a better singer than Matthew Broderick, but it’s a probably a wash, in terms of spoken word performance; Seth Rogan is a step-up as Pumbaa, with Billy Eichner providing the closest thing to an impression with his Timon – without even seeing the 1994 version, it’s likely you could guess he’s replacing Nathan Lane. The hardest task in the film is replacing Jeremy Irons. Ejiofor does a good job, sounding completely unlike himself. He adds a grandiosity to the performance, where there’s even a hint of Brian Blessed in the final scenes. It isn’t quite the same, chilling effect: Scar’s calm “Kill him” was unforgettable, and superior, in the 1994 version, but it’s probably the sole voice (other than Timon) genuinely to suit character design, and importantly it’s not an impression of what came before. The fact there is racial consistency between family members is sensible too.
In terms of look, the film is truly beautiful. Many of the images from the original have been recreated, as photo-real, and look incredible. Animation of all of the key characters is seamless, to the point that it genuinely looks like real animals can talk. In addition, whatever motion capture has been done has worked superbly – young Simba, in particular, really capturing the movements of a kitten. To fill the full running time with effects shots, not one of which has a single discernable flaw, is a stupendous feat, and a sign that anything can be achieved now with sufficient resources (the production budget here was around the $260 million mark). The film attempts, also, to retain that orange/red colour palette from the original, where it can.
The photo-real aspect doesn’t serve a film without humans to anchor it, though. Chiefly because the human face is far more expressive than most, if not all, of the animal kingdom. In some cases the disconnect between both face and voice (unlike in The Jungle Book, characters don’t always suit their voices) and vocal emotion and expression led to trying to avoid really looking at the faces. In that case, the character may as well just be an animated outline. In which case, what’s the point?
The Lion King (2019) is reverential to a fault, with shot selection overly faithful, and even character designs copying where they really should not (see adult Simba’s Rod Stewart mane for example – it’s copying in live action a subtle variation from Mufasa that was there in animation so as not to confuse children. In live action, it just looks like the character has met an incompetent barber). That makes the film a pointless exercise. It’s still The Lion King, however: it retains everything that made the 1994 version work. The songs still fit the story, and the extra running time simply gives everything a little more room to breathe. Inessential, but enjoyable enough, The Lion King continues the trend for the Disney remakes of being just good enough to justify its existence, without being good enough to add anything at all to the original.