Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner
Director: Jon Favreau
Running Time: 118 mins
The Lion King is an American film about the story of Simba, the son of the King of the Pride who is cast out upon his father’s death. However, as he grows out on his in the world, he begins to make his way back to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.
We’re all well accustomed to Disney’s live-action remakes of beloved animated classics, but there’s something about The Lion King that takes the studio’s newest trend to a whole new level. On the one hand, this film is a stunning technical achievement, with astonishing, photorealistic animation that will leave you struggling to believe your eyes. Also, at its best, The Lion King is an energetic and likable reimagining of a real classic.
At its worst, however, this is by far the weakest ‘live-action’ remake so far from Disney. Particularly in the film’s opening half, it seems obsessed with recreating the nostalgia of watching the original Lion King, refusing to even deviate a little from the original plot for fear of soiling the memory. Now, if you know and love the original like the back of your hand, it’s nice to see the same scenes again, but the film approaches what feels like a shot-for-shot remake, which to me felt both pointless and really rather boring.
Altogether, then, The Lion King is really quite a strange film to watch. Technically, it’s magnificent, and it does have humour and energy to entertain – particularly in its final act. However, if you’ve seen the original a number of times (and you most definitely have), then this remake’s almost uncomfortably similar retelling of the same story is underwhelming, dry and dull to watch, lacking the goofy, fun-loving characteristics that only traditional animation can really bring across.
And that’s where I want to start off, because while there can be no denying how astonishingly realistic and detailed the visual effects are here – from every blade of grass to strand of lion’s hair – there’s something about the visual style that really takes away from what is a wonderful story, and one that has entertained viewers of all ages for 25 years.
In part, that’s down to the photorealisitc visuals taking away from some of the film’s more light-hearted, fun-loving qualities (a lot of the musical numbers are nowhere near as vibrant with these visuals). But also, there’s something unsettling about such realistic visual effects in the context of a film about talking animals.
Again, the technical achievement is second to none, but with such realistic-looking animals, the film is asking a hell of a lot of you as the viewer to suspend your disbelief that step further, watching what look exactly like real animals, yet seeing them move their mouths in time with human dialogue, something that’s uncanny and distracting throughout, making me feel as if this style of photorealistic animation/live action would be better represented in a different, more serious film.
Moving on from the visuals, the story is another major sticking point here. Disney have done well to blend the new and the traditional in their most recent remakes, with the likes of Cinderella and Beauty And The Beast sticking closely to the originals’ stories as well as introducing new ideas, while the likes of Dumbo and The Jungle Book have taken an entirely different approach to classic, beloved stories.
The Lion King, on the other hand, sticks like glue to the original story almost from start to finish. Now, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to trample over a truly brilliant story such as The Lion King, but simply doing the exact same thing again with different visuals feels frankly pointless, and doesn’t make for the most entertaining watch in and of itself at any point.
It’s much like director Gus van Sant’s hopelessly misguided shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. You may have an incredible story and brilliant cinematic technique already laid out for you, but there’s no value to the viewer of watching exactly the same thing again, when you could just enjoy the original to the full.
That’s where The Lion King really falls down, particularly in its first half, which is a depressingly dull, slow and unoriginal rehash of the classic animation. As I mentioned previously, the realistic visuals take away from the story’s more fun-loving qualities (I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and Be Prepared really aren’t the same without some of the goofier animation). On top of that, however, all that watching this film in the first act did was make me think back in my mind to the original film, and how the two are so alike in almost every single way.
Strangely, that lack of originality made me smile, with this remake playing heavily on your nostalgia for the original. But that’s not something that means this film deserves praise for, and watching it often felt to me like a rather cheap and once again pointless exercise as a result.
However, there is thankfully a turning point with the introduction of Timon and Pumbaa about halfway through. The original film is brilliant right the way through, but it takes the arrival of the story’s two zaniest characters to inject some life and originality into the remake.
The film continues to stick like glue to the original plot, but it begins to introduce seeds of ingenuity and originality here and there, with a brilliant reimagining of the Hakuna Matata musical number, furthered by a pleasingly similar but impressively different dynamic between Timon and Pumbaa themselves.
With a little bit of ingenuity, and a little bit of self-awareness of itself as a remake, The Lion King finally feels alive with the arrival of the two characters, and as it starts to slightly deviate from the original story and play around with new ideas, it becomes vastly more entertaining, with every scene featuring the lovable meerkat and warthog duo in particular proving a real delight.
And that’s where the film’s strongest point comes in: the voice performances. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are absolute dynamite as Timon and Pumbaa, with chemistry and charisma that matches what you love about the characters in the original, but enough new energy to make it feel like you’re watching something fresh at the same time.
The pair are great fun right through to the finish, and without a doubt the high point of the film, although further credit must be given to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his brilliant turn as Scar, arguably outdoing Jeremy Irons sometimes comically evil performance from the original, by creating a genuinely menacing character with enough gruff to be a genuine match for Mufasa.
So, in the end, there are things about The Lion King that I really didn’t like, but there are also things that I had a lot of fun with. For me, the original will never be outdone, but my nostalgia for it definitely played into my enjoyment of this film, with the return of the excellent songs a delight to see, and the opportunity to see such a great story played out on the big screen once again.
On its own, however, this remake is far from perfect. Its astonishing visuals notwithstanding, The Lion King lacks originality, energy and even basic value throughout, proving a frustrating and often dull watch over the course of a terrible first half, only salvaging itself late on with the arrival of Timon and Pumbaa, as well as the injection of some originality, humour and self-awareness in the second half, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.2 overall.