The Lion King (2019)

The King Has Returned.

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase — well, it was back in 1994, when Walt Disney Pictures first unleashed The Lion King, an animated musical extravaganza set deep in the African savannah, which itself was a loose retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet but with dancing, talking, singing animals. Unsurprisingly, it went on to wow audiences everywhere (of all ages and genders), capturing the hearts of worldwide moviegoers, and as part of the Disney Renaissance, its legacy is endearing — it’ll live on for generations to come. Twenty-five years on and The Lion King is back on the big screen, but this time in live-action — yeah, it’s technically animated, but shot as if it were live-action — hot off the back of the success of Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (2019), the family-friendly studio in the midst of re-releasing all of their timeless tales, with varying degrees of success.

Taking us back to the African Pride Lands is actor-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau, who struck box office and critical gold with his exceptional retool of Disney’s The Jungle Book in 2016. Obviously, the Mouse House is hoping he’s be able to duplicate his outstanding achievement, Favreau having breathed new life into Rudyard Kipling’s seminal story, the aforementioned movie a balanced blend of old-school Disney charm brimming with awe and imagination — innovative storytelling melded with eye-boggling VFX.

Circle Of Life

Of course, this ‘new’ Lion King is brought to life stunningly (if you’ve seen any of the promo stuff you’d know that the artistry on display here is simply game-changing), but once the visual wonder wears off the mind starts drifting — the words ‘get on with it’ kept circling around in my head — this 21st century update very much a shot-for-shot retelling with little in the way of narrative enhancement or extended character development. It’s a prime example of ‘just because you can (thanks to breakthrough advancements in modern technology), doesn’t mean you should’ — see the terrifying trailer for Tom Hooper’s live-action Cats adaptation, due later this year, for further proof.

Unless you’ve been lying under Pride Rock for the past couple of decades, you’ll know how the story goes. Written by Jeff Nathanson, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) — although the screenplay, bar the odd improvised line, is almost word-for-word identical to the ’94 picture, penned by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton, who, thankfully, get some acknowledgment — and based off a story by Brenda Chapman, the story supervisor of the original film, The Lion King chronicles the life of a young Lion named Simba (JD McCrary), who goes from being an overconfident cub, destined to rule the kingdom as successor to his beloved father Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his role), to an exiled runaway, shamed and manipulated by his scheming, power-crazed uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose tyrannical reign brings a matured Simba (Donald ‘Childish Gambino’ Glover) back home to take his place in the Circle of Life as the rightful heir and king. Like any good Shakespearean yarn, it’s a story fraught with tragedy, betrayal, and drama — so why, then, is this re-creation so dreary and lifeless?

‘Today’s morning report — nothing to see here.’

Purists may revel in this copy-and-paste reproduction, but for anyone wanting to see a revised or modernized take there’s nada here. What’s baffling (and quite frustrating really) is the fact that the picture has gone from being a breezy 88 minutes to a whopping 118, with no additional content inserted. Instead, stuff’s been omitted; for starters, Scar’s sinister and catchy ‘Be Prepared’ — which, in its 2D animated form, featured some subtly clever Nazi propaganda-type imagery — has been reduced to a few rhyming lines, while a scene that trails a tuft of hair blowing in the wind seems to go on forever. As a reboot, the whole film feels way to tame and safe, lacking the energy and emotion of the original. And Favreau confirmed this in a recent interview: ‘we felt it wasn’t appropriate for us to take the title and make it our own story.’ If this is indeed the case, why bother remaking the movie at all? What’s the point when a far superior version already exists?

So is The Lion King 2019 more or less the same movie with fancier animation? Well, yes and no. While it works as an impressive showreel for the MPC — and really puts them on the map when it comes to cutting-edge CGI — the whole thing comes off as an odd sort of exercise. With Favreau and other key production/ department heads — including VFX Supervisor Adam Valdez, who was also the MPC FX supervisor on 2016’s The Jungle Book — venturing to Kenya for a two-week research safari, the African landscape has never looked so real — streams, skylines, sand, mountains, and other animal-dense areas. The furry critters, feathered friends, and slimy creepy crawlies have been given digital birth, too, each lifelike in behavior and design — it’s hard to believe they’re all pixels on a computer. Ultimately, though, the film’s biggest asset turns out to be a bit of a setback as the photorealistic imagery can be somewhat jarring against the dialogue; often there’s a major disconnect between the animals and their vocals — basically, the voices don’t always sync with that of their mouth movements. For instance, Last Week Tonight (2014) host John Oliver does an admirable job voicing Zazu, Mufasa’s majordomo, but how a beaked hornbill can speak in an English accent is beyond me.

‘A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun.’

Most of the beloved songs, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, make a triumphant return — though they’re nowhere near as memorable — while Hans Zimmer’s roaring and rousing score wholly does justice to the soundtrack of the former film — he was, after all, composer of the ’94 version. And although the tunes are still great in their own right there’s little pizzazz to the musical ditties accompanying them, the animals all limited by their realistic designs and restricted physicality — in no surprise to anyone, wildlife can’t be choreographed, so giraffes, rhinos and zebras can’t bust a move and, in the case of ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,’ ostriches, so I’ve heard, can’t be ridden by lion cubs. Also, what happened to Rafiki’s ‘asante sana, squash banana’ jingle, and why does the chart-busting ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ take place during broad daylight? Did someone forget about the word ‘tonight’?

Even with the who’s-who of Hollywood’s black community lioned-up for vocal duties, most struggle to reach the heights of their ’94 counterparts. The usually excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013), is bland and forgettable as Scar, Mufasa’s lustful, cunning brother, his dull delivery paling in comparison to Irons’ iconic, more theatrical rendering. Ex-Destiny’s Child poster-girl Beyoncé (credited as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter here) is dang awful as Nala, Simba’s fierce and frisky BFF, her drab solo track ‘Spirit’ — this and Sir Elton’s ‘Never Too Late,’ which plays over the closing credits, are only added songs — grinding against the rich and frisky tone of the other, already established musical numbers — whenever Nala spoke, I couldn’t help but visualize Yoncé’s grating face.

‘You’re about to become kitty litter.’

Clear cast highlights are Seth Rogen, Sausage Party (2016), and Billy Eichner, The Angry Birds Movie (2016), who voice warthog Pumbaa and meerkat Timon respectively, their goofy banter and obvious ad-lib boosting the proceedings — there’s a nice little nod to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast too, playfully delivered by the odd-couple pair. Try as they might (and, boy, do they try), funnymen Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland (2015), and Eric André, Man Seeking Woman (2015-17), crash and burn in their attempts to instill humor into the drama as hyenas Kamari and Azizi — these carnivorous scavengers are all so difficult to differentiate, but in the wilderness all animals look pretty much the same, right?

The legendary James Earl Jones has also been brought back to re-voice Mufasa: ‘we couldn’t picture anyone else in the role,’ Favreau explains. Well, I couldn’t imagine anyone else voicing Shenzi bar Whoopi Goldberg, but here we are with Florence Kasumba, Black Panther (2018), in the part. Honestly, Mufasa’s casting choice is just plain insulting — you either bring back every one or no one.

To sum it all up, there’s a bit towards the film’s climax where wastrels Timon and Pumbaa perform an acapella rendition of The Tokens’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ with a cluster of other colorful critters, and this scene doesn’t work on multiple levels. Even if we’re led to believe that the animals are in fact communicating (so they’re not actually speaking, but the translation is there so that we can understand them), how are they performing a song that has never reached the depths of the African jungle — disheveled warthog Pumbaa looks as though he’s never been touched by ounce of the civilized world. Traditional cartoons, you see, allow audiences to suspend disbelief in a way that live-action doesn’t, but when the visuals are this true-to-life (we’re talkin’ National Geographic type stuff, minus the buttholes and gentiles) there’s simply no buying into it; so, foregoing logic or plausibility becomes near impossible.

‘You guys are a gas!’

Sure, The Lion King ’19 had lion-sized shoes to fill — I don’t envy anyone working of the project — but it’s a fail on almost every conceivable level, lacking the sheer vibrancy and bounce of the 1994 classic. See it if you must (I understand that many might be curious), but I urge every man and his dog not to waste the time or money. If you do, however, venture out to the theatre, be prepared for the disappointment of a lifetime, as Jon Favreau’s Lion King is Disney’s biggest misfire to date — savage, I know, but oh so true!

3 / 5 – Good (Simply for the hard work and effort of the animation team)

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Lion King is released through Disney Australia