‘The Lion King’ is a dutiful recreation of a beloved classic: Review

There’s nothing really wrong with the new Lion King.

The story is a classic for a reason. The animation is stunning, so lifelike it’d be borderline terrifying if it weren’t so cute. The music, by Hans Zimmer, remains irresistible, and that original track by Beyoncé feels like a welcome addition rather than an intrusive one (as Jasmine’s new number in the recent Aladdin remake did).

Oh, and speaking of Ms. Knowles-Carter, that voice cast is top-notch, too. She brings soul and depth to Nala, John Oliver sounds like he was born to play Zazu, and Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner damn near steal the whole show as Pumbaa and Timon.

It’s clear that no expense was spared, that no detail was too small to fret over, that a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into ensuring that the new Lion King would deliver everything fans loved about the old Lion King. This is no lazy cash grab. It’s a lovingly envisioned, lavishly produced, and painstakingly crafted cash grab. And it’s not much more than that. 

It tries to be, I suppose. The remake runs about half an hour longer than usual, to let beloved scenes linger longer than they used to (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is practically a full-fledged musical number now), and to add a few new scenes for supporting characters like Nala. 

Yet none of this amounts to anything fresh or new or vital. The remake doesn’t deepen our understanding of these characters, or this story, or this world, in any significant way. It doesn’t offer any new insights into the story’s themes, or update any of its lessons for a new era. The Lion King is content to simply run through the same motions all over again, just with newer, shinier tools. 

Zazu and Simba: new look, same hilarious dynamic.

Zazu and Simba: new look, same hilarious dynamic.

The 2019 version does inspire a renewed appreciation of the original, but probably not the ways it intends to. Mostly, it becomes a reminder that there are things traditional animation can get away with that photorealistic animation cannot. Like stack animals on top of each other for a choreographed dance number — in the new iteration, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is reduced to some shots of frolicking animals.

Or, for that matter, sell us on the idea of these lions to begin with. There’s only so far an animator can push a cat’s facial or body language before they cease to look believable. So we’re left with a serious disconnect in moments like Mufasa’s death, where the voice actor’s teary panic becomes difficult to reconcile with the dry-eyed, relatively reserved animal we see onscreen. 

There is nothing about the new Lion King that feels like it needed to be made at this specific moment, by this specific team, in this specific way.

Tastes have changed since the first Lion King came out, of course, and it’s quite possible young viewers who cut their teeth on Disney’s Jungle Book remake (also from Lion King director Jon Favreau) will prefer this style of animation regardless of its strengths or weaknesses. But speaking as someone who grew up in the ’90s, I can’t imagine why I’d ever revisit this new version when the old version is still accessible. 

There is nothing about the new Lion King that feels like it needed to be made at this specific moment, by this specific team, in this specific way. Perhaps that’s an unfair standard for a movie; plenty of projects exist for no obvious reason beyond their slam-dunk box-office prospects, and most of them are shoddier than The Lion King

On the other hand, Disney put these filmmakers and this cast in a room with that much money and that much time, and the best they could do was a basically fine but markedly inferior recreation of an old movie? Really?

In a way, it does seem appropriate that this story of a young prince finding his way back to duty would itself feel so duty-bound. But at least Simba got to spend some time out in the wild exploring himself first, expanding his horizons and challenging his assumptions. 

The new movie about him is all “remember who you are” conventionality and no “hakuna matata” creativity. And while that makes for a perfectly respectable box office king, it doesn’t make for an especially interesting one.  

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