THE LION KING – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Donald Glover (Solo: A Star Wars Story), Seth Rogen (Long Shot), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage), Billy Eichner (Difficult People), John Kani (Black Panther), John Oliver (Community), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Dreamgirls), James Earl Jones (Coming to America)

Director: Jon Favreau (Iron Man)

Writer: Jeff Nathanson (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes

Release Date: 19th July (US, UK)

A lot of people like to make the hyperbolic statement that Disney’s live-action remakes are literally shot-for-shot, and so far that has not been the case at all. Some like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast have stuck very close to the script whilst also making (for better or worse) slight alterations, but there are just as many like Cinderella and Dumbo that have taken the original film and expanded them into something new; not that examples of the latter have always been necessarily better.

However, Jon Favreau’s reimagining of The Jungle Book balanced that line perfectly, crafting a beautiful and unique film that many would argue was an improvement on the original. Jumping from that success to remaking one of Disney’s most iconic films in a similar fashion makes sense in many ways but is also absolutely insane. Whilst The Lion King isn’t an absolutely perfect film (no film is), to many it is a childhood classic with few meaningful issues to be addressed, and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a traditional live-action adaptation. Beyond adding more fuel to the Disney machine, what purpose does this remake serve? Having now seen the final product, I can say the film never delivers a satisfying alternate answer.

If you’ve seen The Lion King before, there is pretty much nothing in the 2019 version that will surprise you. More so than any previous Disney live-action adaptation, this is a film that beat-for-beat follows its progenitor, right down to using much of the same dialogue. Though the film now runs half an hour longer, not much has been added of significance; the only noticeable additions are some extended nature sequences and a lot of ad-libbed gags. The story itself is still well told and briskly paced, and the themes about reconciling your past with your future and learning the responsibilities of leadership are as timeless as ever, but the film makes little effort to make you forget about what you already know and see the story in a new light. If anything, the film only draws attention to your memories of the 1994 classic, only making it easier to draw comparisons and rarely does the remake come out the victor in those. For members of the audience unfamiliar with the original, most of these issues won’t be applicable and those viewers will likely have a far more enjoyable experience, but for the initiated watching this film is like having constant déjà vu for two straight hours.

From a casting perspective, Disney has admittedly done a fantastic job of recasting all of these iconic characters. It is especially welcome that (unlike the original) this feature set in Africa has a predominantly black cast and, though on paper the story is much the same, there is certainly an effort amongst many of the actors to give these characters a different dimension. Donald Glover makes for a charming and relatable Simba, giving the character a slightly more jaded millennial edge, whilst his childhood counterpart JD McCrary is spirited and childlike in all the right ways. Though hardly a scratch on Jeremy Irons’ fabulous performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor has a more menacing take on Scar that reframes the character as less incompetent and more imperious; much like with Jafar in this year’s Aladdin, the removal of the queercoding aspects of the character does make the character less problematic but also robs him much of his charm.

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter feels a bit underused as Nala, as does Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, but they do well with the material given to them, whilst John Kani gets far less to do as Rafiki as his counterpart did in the original. Much of the film’s best moments come from its comedic characters, as its clear the actors have been let loose to improvise and have fun with the material. Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André are quite fun as a pair of bickering hyenas, and John Oliver is an absolutely genius piece of casting as Zazu, but the film is easily stolen from the moment they appear by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Whilst their performances do owe a lot of debt to their originators Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, the bickering pair do make the characters their own and are responsible for every unique and memorable moment this film has to offer.

Much has been made about the unique way this new Lion King was made and whether to classify the film as live action, animated, or something new entirely. From a technical perspective, the film is basically flawless. The quality of the animation and visual effects is so precise and lifelike that it’s hard to believe not a single live-action element was used. Much of the production is shot in a manner to evoke a nature documentary, and for certain sequences that framing absolutely adds to the film’s verisimilitude. However, as much as the new technology impresses at first glance, not only does its splendour wear off quickly but it also hampers the film’s storytelling.

Yes, giving the film a grounded, photo-real aesthetic does look gorgeous at first, but doing so immediately means sacrificing everything visually appealing about the film’s musical sequences. Yes, the fact that all the characters are animated exactly like their real animal counterparts is an impressive feat, but those restrictions mean no range in their facial expressions to humanise them. There’s no denying what the filmmakers have done here is an impressive feat for modern filmmaking technology, but if anything retelling this story in such a naturalistic way only goes to highlight why the original was told in the animation style it was.

Of all the soundtracks of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King easily has the most iconic; there’s not a song on that playlist that hasn’t become a classic. For the most part, the new film’s reinterpretations are solid if not exactly remarkable. “Circle of Life” is practically indistinguishable from its previous incarnation, whilst “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is given some freshness mainly thanks to Oliver’s new interjections and greater infusion of African harmonics. “Hakuna Matata” is as funny as ever and again Eichner and Rogen’s performances lend it a lot of charm, whilst Glover and Beyoncé have a surprising amount of musical chemistry in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”.

The only classic song to be drastically reworked is “Be Prepared”, which has totally lost its bombast and become more of a more subdued sing-talk interlude; it’s obvious it was a last-minute addition after there was some backlash it was going to be cut. There are two new songs, but neither are actually numbers weaved into the narrative. Beyoncé’s “Spirit” simply plays in the background during one quick sequence, whilst Elton John’s “Never Too Late” plays over the credits. Both are perfectly fine examples of songs by their respective artists, and I do somewhat prefer this approach to shoving a new song in just to bait a Best Original Song nomination at the Oscars, but neither are a patch on the originals.

2019’s The Lion King is basically just a feature-length tech demo that tells its story competently but without any of the magic traditional animation allows. Compared to many of the other Disney remakes, this one has almost too much reverence for the original, resulting in a film that’s inoffensive but absolutely unnecessary. When compared to the original, there’s nothing this film does that is distinctly better than its predecessor, and because of that I can only recommend this to absolutely diehard Lion King fans. Otherwise, if you want that nostalgia kick or are thinking of introducing your kids to this story, just go watch the original instead. It’s a timeless film, whilst this will doubtlessly age as all CGI eventually does. I mean…have you actually tried watching Avatar again lately?


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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