NOTE: this review contains spoilers for The Lion King, a movie that’s been out for 25 years. You’ve been warned.
Jon Favreau’s remake of 1994’s The Lion King is a visually sumptuous re-skin of the original. As a one-time-watch theatrical experience, the 2019 update showcases stunning technology while leaving enough of the original’s heart and charm intact.
Part “Hamlet” and part Bambi, the story of The Lion King is well-known by now. King Mufasa struggles to tame his headstrong and immature son, Simba. Meanwhile, Mufasa’s brother Scar schemes to usurp the throne for himself. A horrible tragedy leaves Simba banished and Scar as king. Years later, a carefree Simba must reconcile his past and take his rightful place in the Circle of Life.
Utilizing cutting-edge virtual reality technology, Favreau has made a visually stunning movie. The Lion King takes everything that was already done well in Favreau’s The Jungle Book remake and improves upon it. Textures, detail, lighting — every visual element is spectacular. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel deserves a lot of credit for how well the movie looks, even if so many shots are lifted straight out of the original.
In fact, I was shocked that the entire opening “Circle of Life” sequence is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 version. Much of the movie plays this way, with only trivial additions or alterations made along the way. The biggest change is “Be Prepared,” which has been completely toned down to the point of barely being a musical number. (It does end with a nice homage to the original, though.)
Other changes include things like the way in which Rafiki discovers that Simba is still alive, Nala’s escape from the Pridelands, and a new Beyoncé song playing as adult Simba returns to Pride Rock. The most disappointing change is Favreau’s re-imagining of Mufasa’s ghost speaking to Simba. This iconic scene from the original has been totally muted in the remake, robbed of its visceral and emotional impact.
The voice cast is great. A lot of pre-release press focused on the expressiveness (or lack thereof) of the animals in the movie. I found them to be completely expressive, but a lot of that is due to how well the voice actors do their jobs. Special mention to Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, who are so good that I never once thought of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. The kids voicing young Simba and Nala are also very good, especially JD McCrary as the former. (His voice is a dead ringer for Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ at times).
Sadly, the one weak link is the only actor returning from the original: James Earl Jones. Through no fault of his own (Father Time is undefeated), Jones simply sounds too old to be a young cub’s father, let alone a warrior king of a pride of lions. On top of that, so many of his lines are exactly the same as 25 years ago. They should’ve just used the original recordings, all of which provided better line readings than Jones does in the remake. Better yet, they should’ve re-cast the part entirely.
Musically, this movie is basically the same as the original. New singers voice old songs and there is the aforementioned new Beyoncé track. Donald Glover manages not to embarrass himself in Beyoncé’s company on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
The 3D work is outstanding, even better than it was in The Jungle Book, while the IMAX experience is still unparalleled. Reportedly, at least one shot in the movie is a real shot of the African wilderness, but I couldn’t tell you which one. It all looks seamless and will leave you spellbound.
I doubt that anyone already familiar with the 1994 version would ever choose to watch the remake over the original. Newcomers to The Lion King will likely enjoy the 2019 update, but empirically, the original will continue to stand as the definitive telling of this story.