I’ve heard it said that The Lion King is the most bankable franchise in history. I don’t know if that’s true anymore (I’d be interested to see those numbers after Harry Potter and the MCU), but it certainly could have been true back in the ’90s. Given the constant ubiquity of The Lion King since 1994 (I won’t even try cataloging all of its different incarnations, spin-offs, and merchandising here), of course Disney was guaranteed to revisit the film during their ongoing live-action remake phase.

With The Lion King (2019), the filmmakers promised a photo-realistic take on the same story, featuring characters and settings that look borderline indistinguishable from real live animals on the actual African savannah. Right off the bat, I considered this a massive red flag, and for one simple reason: It implies that the setting is the most important part of the movie.

Hear me out.

There’s a reason why The Lion King is frequently compared to the works of Shakespeare. The stories, themes, and characters of the original film are all classic archetypes, made from timeless and universal stuff recognizable from Shakespeare’s time and even further back into antiquity. With that in mind, answer me this: If this exact same story had been told in any other time and place, and with characters of any other species, would it really have been so radically different? Potentially, there could be as many ways to tell this story as to tell Hamlet or Macbeth.

For instance, I once saw a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in which all of the characters were orcs. Can you picture the story of The Lion King told, but all of the characters are orcs? How would that make any appreciable difference, seriously?

Speaking purely from my own experience, I’d wager that the animation and the music were both far greater reasons why the original film is so iconic and beloved. Or maybe the film means so much to you (as it did to me personally) because Mufasa’s was the first onscreen death that truly affected you. Would that death have been any less powerful or meaningful if the father and son were humans? Or aliens? Or anything other than lions?

Getting back to the animation, I disagree with the basic premise that “more realistic” automatically means “better.” The cel-shaded characters of the 1994 film may not have looked exactly like real animals, but they had personality. They each had their own distinct and identifiable look, and they could show clear facial expressions.

Just for a moment, pretend you’ve never seen anything from the 2019 remake. Maybe you’ve heard of it, but you’ve never seen a single frame of it. Now look at this picture, removed from all context. Is that Simba? Mufasa? Is it just another lion? How could you tell? But look at this picture, and I guarantee you nobody would have to ask who that is.

This gets to be an especially huge problem in the third act, when Sarabi and Nala are both grown lions, both active in the plot, and telling them apart from one another is pretty much impossible. Later on, when Simba and Scar are fighting each other, it’s all just a mass of fur and there’s no telling who’s who.

Incidentally, the original film and the remake both feature a freak bolt of lightning striking a dry tree at the most dramatically convenient time and setting all of Pride Rock ablaze in an instant. That worked in the original film because the presentation had more of a fantasy tinge, and we’d already sat through so many bright and colorful music numbers by that point. Suspending disbelief was easy. Compare that to the remake, which puts a lot more effort on setting this story in the “real” world. So much so that Mufasa’s ghost now appears as a giant thundercloud only vaguely resembling a lion’s head, and the “Just Can’t Wait to be King” number swaps out the multicolored Busby Berkeley spectacle with the actual colors and sounds of the real African savannah.

As so often happens with these Disney live-action remakes, it smacks of the filmmakers trying to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work. That said, this is the one live-action remake in which bringing back the original songs was the right decision. Because the context is virtually unchanged and all of the voices in the remake are comparable with those of the original (and in the case of Mufasa’s, literally the same), the old songs are all carried over intact. With a few exceptions.

Probably the most tragic casualty is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” here presented without a single iota of chemistry, magic, or romance. “Be Prepared” is almost as bad, as the “photo-realistic” approach means that we get a villain song without any of the larger-than-life bombast to make it scary, imposing, or fun in any way. Conversely, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is actually improved upon here, a fun little song in multi-part harmony instead of a quick throwaway joke. Otherwise, “Hakuna Matata” works out okay, and the opening “Circle of Life” number is practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original sequence.

(Side note: The soundtrack also features an original song called “Spirit”. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it if I tried.)

Speaking of which, this movie puts in a far more deliberate effort at making “The Circle of Life” into more than just a catchphrase. The interconnected nature of life, how everyone has a place in the grand scheme of things, and how we therefore have a responsibility to one another because every action has consequences… these are all prominent themes made abundantly clear to an extent that they never were in the original film. For example, it’s explicitly stated in the remake that Scar allowed his hyenas to overhunt, wantonly culling the population of prey animals to throw off the Circle of Life, and that is why Pride Rock fell to shit when he took the throne. That is a massive improvement.

On the other hand, we also get a subplot in which Scar covets Sarabi for his own wife. While this was always kinda sorta implied in the source material, this movie makes it perfectly clear to no effect at all. Seriously, the added motivation is useless and it would’ve been more than enough that Scar was greedy and power-mad for the sake of it.

Given that the remake is half an hour longer than the original, it should come as no surprise that there’s a lot of bloat here. One prominent case in point comes late in the second act, when Nala has to sneak her way out of Pride Rock. There’s this whole extended sequence in which Nala is trying to avoid Scar and his hyenas, and it would have done just as much good on the cutting room floor.

But of course the most bewildering waste of time has to be the sequence in which a tuft of Simba’s hair finds its way to Rafiki. In the original film, this took virtually no time at all — a simple cross-fade and it was done. Here, it’s this massive, sprawling, three-minute sequence in which we follow Simba’s hair every single agonizing step of the way. And a significant stretch of that journey includes the digestive tract of a giraffe. Yes, you read that correctly.

Getting back to the villains roster, Chiwetel Ejiofor was a marvelous choice for Scar and he plays the role superbly. Banzai and Ed have now been replaced with Kamari and Azizi, respectively played by Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre. (I presume Jordan Peele was unavailable.) Thus instead of a triple-act — as in the original film — we now have a double-act of bickering hyenas. I’m willing to call that an upgrade, especially since the two of them are played by gifted comedians and Ed was useless by design anyway.

Meanwhile, Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) has been promoted and she is now the Chief Hyena. This was apparently done so that Nala (Beyonce) would have a worthy opponent to fight in the climax, and I really don’t mind that. After all, it’s not like Nala served much of any purpose in the source material, except to serve as a love interest. Hell, even Zazu, Pumbaa, and Rafiki show some backbone and get in on the action at times. It’s not always much, but kudos all the same.

Zazu (John Oliver), Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and Timon (Billy Eichner) are all fantastic. Zazu and Pumbaa are by far the most improved, as it makes an incalculably huge difference to have comic relief characters played by actors who are legitimately funny. Granted, neither Oliver nor Rogen can sing for shit, but that’s not exactly a dealbreaker as neither of those were ever huge singing roles.

The big problem with the comic relief — and this is pretty much solely limited to Timon and Pumbaa — is that it gets uncomfortably meta. There are a lot of direct references to the original film, and the hula number in the original is here replaced with a straight-up parody of a Disney song from another film. (No, I’m not spoiling which one.) On the one hand, it was imperative to bring in new jokes and new surprises to keep the comedy fresh for the remake. And it’s not like the original film was entirely void of anachronisms or Disney references (“It’s a Small World”, anyone?).

On the other hand, these meta references and comments on the original film add to the feeling that this remake can’t stand on its own merit. That was always going to be this remake’s biggest problem and its main struggle for credibility. Even as it is, I’m mentally projecting the 1994 character designs onto the 2019 character designs because it’s the only way I can tell who’s who. When the filmmakers are already fighting an uphill battle in convincing moviegoers that this remake is justified, leaning so heavily against the original film and other Disney pictures seems to be a tactical blunder.

Back to the voice cast, of course it was a joy to hear James Earl Jones back in the role of Mufasa. Sure, he’s getting on in years, but that works beautifully with the character. We’ve also got Alfre Woodard on hand, turning in a solid performance as Sarabi. Further kudos are due to JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, respectively voicing Young Simba and Young Nala. I especially liked the film’s renewed emphasis on Simba’s childish fixation on being treated as the future king (read: king), rather than a helpless cub.

Alas, adult Simba and adult Nala don’t fare nearly as well. Beyonce was miscast, and she clearly sounds like the role is beneath her. And Donald Glover… buddy, I love you, but you’re not a voice actor. And that makes a huge difference when the onscreen characters are barely capable of emoting. The voice acting and the camera movements are pretty much all we’ve got for getting into the characters’ heads and understanding their emotions, so when the voice acting isn’t there, we’re dead in the water.

The Lion King (2019) is ultimately a remake. Nothing more, nothing less. It does some things better, it does other things worse, and it all evens out to nothing lesser or greater than a different telling of the same old story. Not any better or worse, necessarily, just different.

That said, I keep coming back to the meta jokes, plus the songs and character designs that are nowhere near as effective as those of the original. With that in mind, I have a very difficult time justifying this movie as its own standalone feature, and I can’t imagine that this would be anyone’s ideal introduction to the franchise.

I’m giving this one a highly tentative recommendation, but only as a supplement to the original animated feature. Not unlike the Broadway stage show, come to think of it.

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