The Lion King (2019) – Review

Yes, I enjoyed the remake of The Lion King.

No, I am not an evil monster who takes pleasure in killing cinema, nor have been paid extravagant amounts of cash by the Walt Disney Corporation to make that statement. Truth be told, it’s one of the more harmless remakes they’ve done; nothing more (and nothing less) than a retelling of the original film with modern technology. It’s practically critic-proof, which has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth from my fellow critics. Yet frankly put, not of all that criticism is earned.

If you’ve seen the original, you know what happens. Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a child, Donald Glover as an adult), the young and boisterous prince of the Pride Lands, has his world rocked when his stern yet loving father, Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, again) is murdered at the hands of his wicked uncle Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Simba flees the savannah and grows up under the guidance of Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively), and the phrase “Hakuna Matata” takes over his life while the Pride Lands crumbles to dust under Scar’s unholy allegiance with the once-banished hyenas. It’s not until his childhood friend Nala (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) finds him in the jungle, and a ghostly vision of his father, that Simba finally matures and returns home to take back what is rightfully his.

The film closely follows the original, even shot-for-shot in some cases. The changes made are small in stature but significant in terms of story. Mufasa and Scar’s relationship is explored more, the conflict between the lions and the hyenas is made more clear, and both Nala and Simba’s mother Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodward) are given more to do. Ultimately, it presents a more serious version of the story, one with a more mature audience in mind. However, that doesn’t mean that the kids will feel left out. The film’s lush visuals and strong soundtrack will help with that. Hans Zimmer’s score in particular feels inspired, and delivers a revamp of his Academy-Award winning compositions that stands out as some of the best work he’s done in quite a few years. The songs themselves are of the same quality as the first time around, with producer Pharrell making some interesting choices here and there (“Be Prepared”, in order to fit with Disney’s darker vision, has been drastically rewritten and decamped).

The voice cast is solid all around. Eichner and Rogen steal the show, as does Zazu, who is voiced by late night host John Oliver. Ejiofor makes for a good, more ruthless Scar, and the regal glory of James Earl Jones’s voice is still enough to make one sit up straight with honor and nostalgia. Glover plays Simba as a bored and insecure manchild, which arguably adds a little more personality compared to Matthew Broderick’s bland performance in the original. Beyoncé, surprising absolutely no one, is majestic and commanding as Nala, and her airy tone on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is heavenly.

Visually, there’s some moments where the “Uncanny Valley” effect can be felt, but by the end of the first fifteen minutes, that problem fades away. Some of the best parts of the film are when it just takes the time to show off what Disney’s computer animators can now achieve; like the sequence where a small tuft of hair from Simba’s mane makes way back to the Pride Lands to Rafiki. The details are jaw-dropping, and it’s easy to see what got director Jon Favreau excited about the dizzying new technological heights that computer generated imagery is reaching.

This has all been general praise, but at the same time, it’s no masterwork of cinema either. It’s a solid and entertaining film that will keep you and any child in the auditorium occupied and interested for two hours. It’s not a crime against art or a monstrous hell-beast bent on destroying all that you hold precious. However, let’s talk about the elephant (or the lion, if you will) in the room; Disney.

Disney’s complete takeover of the domestic box office this year has been noticed by many and celebrated by none. As audiences grow more comfortable with choosing familiar properties and beloved items of pop culture over less familiar ideas, there’s been a sense of doom and gloom in the air among those in that sheltered bubble known as “Film Twitter”. Some have even made personal vendettas against the House of Mouse, or called for a movement to break up the company. Time and time again, original flicks have failed to take off, while the familiar has soared. Just look at how Aladdin is on the verge of surpassing a billion dollars at the box office, while fellow weekend release Booksmart seems delegated to small cult status.

The theatrical experience is becoming increasingly more and more like Broadway: expensive and inaccessible to many, available only to the privileged few. There’s no room for risk in the wallets of families and many young adults, so they’ll see what they recognize. Which is not just Disney, but the entire Hollywood system, is capitalizing on. The superhero films, the live-action remakes, the musician biopics, the horror franchises – they all come from the same mindset that the studios collectively share. This isn’t just a problem within Disney, it’s a problem within all major studios. Yes, I worry about these things. Yes, I want small films to survive and thrive. No, I don’t think that picking a fight against the most powerful media conglomerate in the film industry or judging people morally for seeing these remakes is the way to do that. Watching a movie, especially a blockbuster, is not a moral decision. Telling someone that the life or death of cinema depends on them purchasing a ticket to see the latest acclaimed indie is not the way to get people into theatres.

Maybe I’m just a cynical bastard with a weary view of the world. But cinema is changing, and the way audiences watch movies is rapidly shifting towards the realm of streaming and VOD. It’s even changing how films of specific genres are produced – comedy has taken up keep in Netflix, adult drama has evolved into miniseries on Hulu and HBO, and so on and so forth. The theatrical experience for many will be reserved for movies like The Lion King: major spectacles with star-filled casts that awaken feelings of nostalgia in the viewers. It’s a whole new world out there, and the need to adapt is more important than ever.

So see The Lion King if you want. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just don’t judge anyone who chooses one way or the other.

The Lion King opens nationwide July 19th.

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