The third remake of a classic Disney toon this year – coming hot on the heels of the underperforming Dumbo and the rather more successful Aladdin – The Lion King was always going to be a tricky prospect. The highest-grossing of Disney’s traditional, non-CG animated classics (its box-office total stands at $968 million worldwide – not bad for a film that came out 25 years ago), the original is arguably the most beloved film of the Disney Renaissance era.
So, how exactly do you remake The Lion King? Well, the answer from director Jon Favreau (who saw huge success with his adaptation of The Jungle Book a few years back) and his crew is to take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. The Lion King 2019 hews closer to its source material more than any other Disney update so far – the action is very-near shot-for-shot, with huge swathes of the script ported over verbatim and the songs only ever-so-slightly riffed upon (as referenced in one particularly knowing gag).
As you might expect from that description, the story sticks to the template almost religiously. A Shakespearean tale of bloodlines and power struggles told with cute critters rather than men in tights and ruffs, the film follows the adventures of young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary) – the son of wise ruler Mufasa (a returning James Earl Jones) and heir to the kingdom of Pride Rock. But after Simba’s bitter uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) enacts a plan to seize the throne, a grown-up Simba (Donald Glover) faces a hard choice – settle into a care-free life as an exile, or face his demons and return home to fight for his father’s legacy.
This beat-hitting technique is likely to be a plus-point for fans who don’t want to see the original masterwork tampered with too much. But it’s also the film’s biggest weakness. What you end up with is a traced-over retelling of one of the greatest animated films of all time – a funny, endearing and frequently thrilling tale that comes with a huge side of overfamiliarity and a nagging underlying feeling of “What’s the point?” If anything, it’s probably best to go into it as you would go into a performance of the hit stage show: be prepared for a story you already know and love, retold with new tools.
And it’s those new tools that really are the aces up Favreau’s sleeve. This is not technically a “live-action” remake, but it doesn’t look far off. There is a groundbreaking level of artistry on display here, and it feels like a giant leap forward for CG animation: the animal characters are rendered with an astounding degree of depth and texture, while the (mostly) recreated locales of the African savannah are so photo-real you’d be hard pushed to notice the difference between this and a high-def Attenborough doc.
Look underneath that shiny new veneer though, and what you’ll find is essentially a story that’s extremely similar to the original but that lacks a good chunk of its energy and personality. Granted, it’s hard to improve on a film that many feel is near-perfect. But although this version is half an hour longer, there’s nothing that sticks out as particularly improved or even new, save for a fresh song, ‘Spirit’, sung by Beyoncé (who voices the adult version of Simba’s mate, Nala), which is layered over the action rather than being played out as a musical number in its own right and doesn’t quite hit the heights of Elton John and Tim Rice’s original – and eminently sing-alongable – compositions.
The high-profile voice actors do their best, but they’re hamstrung by the heard-it-before nature of the script, the looming shadows of some of the ’94 version’s iconic vocal turns, and the slightly less-anthropomorphised expressions of their animal counterparts. The performers who tackle this challenge most successfully are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa respectively. Favreau wisely amplifies the actors’ witty rapport and improv skills, meaning that Simba’s loveable pals are the two characters that are allowed to go most off-book and, as before, provide most of the film’s laughs. Props, too, go to Ejiofor, whose deliciously deceptive turn as Scar manages to add even more layers to the story’s villain (once memorably voiced by Jeremy Irons).
As a film in its own right, then, this new Lion King is still enjoyable – especially for those who are new to the story – and its staggering visual achievements should rightly be celebrated. But for anyone who’s seen and loved the original animation, it inevitably suffers by comparison – chiefly because it sticks so closely to its source. Put simply, if you’re suffering remake fatigue, this will seem less like the circle of life and more like Disney chasing its tail. But if you’re more ‘Hakuna Matata’ about the whole thing, you’ll likely have a good time.