The anticipation is over – the live action Lion King film finally hit theaters this weekend. The early box office projections are astounding. The movie is projected to make around $200 million this weekend alone, which would be the highest July opening of all-time. That part is no surprise, since basically every theater this weekend is full of both young kids looking to experience the magic of the film’s intro for the first time, as well as their parents looking to re-live that feeling of childhood magic within themselves. The surprise comes from the fact that this version of The Lion King has a bark that’s way stronger than its bite.
Jon Favreau has headed this project as its director since word got out of its development a couple years ago. Disney figured to be in good hands since he also directed the very successful Jungle Book remake back in 2016. That version of the Jungle Book was actually the second live-action take on the classic film, but the consensus was that it was the better than the 1994 version.
Unfortunately when it comes to this Lion King though, Favreau came up short, way short, in his attempt at creating a true to life experience of this iconic original. To his defense, it may not be all his fault. For one, the hype around this movie, like Mufasa, was larger than life. Looking back in hindsight, it would’ve been hard for anyone to successfully pull this off due to the fact that the 1995 original was as close to perfect as you could get. For my money, that Lion King is the best Disney film of all-time and it’s not even close.
In addition to the success and popularity to this day of the original, Favreau’s all-star cast, which included the likes of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Beyonce, as well as acting legends like Alfre Woodard and James Earl Jones, was a larger than life assemblage of talent. Naturally and rightfully so, the audience’s hopes are going to be through the roof. I thought Beyonce, arguably the biggest name on that aforementioned list, was a boring Nala and sounded for the most part like she was simply reading lines instead of “voice-acting.” I don’t think Beyonce is a bad actress at all. In fact, I think she is a strong one and has delivered some solid performances in her acting career. I am just not sure voice-over work is best suited for her.
The heartbeat of this version of The Lion King is in the visual effects. Favreau and his team did an amazing job at creating a beautiful African landscape to serve as the stage for his digitally altered wildlife. With that being said, the special effects of the animals versus filming real life animals exclusively in a real life setting is the most disappointing and confusing aspect to this movie. Favreau had an opportunity of a lifetime that so many filmmakers would’ve licked their chops to get the chance to pounce on – creating a live-action remake, yet original take on a visual and emotional masterpiece. Instead, he punted on adding any meaningful originality.
As much as I respect James Earl Jones and was happy to see him back as Mufasa, he basically had his time wasted voicing virtually the same lines over again from the original. Aside from a word or phrase here and there, Disney might as well have re-used Jones’ soundtracks from the original movie over again on this one and it wouldn’t have even been noticeable.
Here’s what I was looking for and why I was so excited for this remake. I wanted to see the characters in a real-life, natural Serengeti, not real animals digitally altered like phony puppets. I wanted to see a real pride of lions in their actual habitat with voice-overs saying their thoughts, similar to how it was done on Homeward Bound back in the day. I was hoping to see an organic blend of memorable scenes from the predecessor peppered in with a majority of innovative original ones that made for unforgettable moments for this new generation to cherish. I was looking forward to hearing covers of the original soundtrack by artists who made the songs their own. We didn’t really get any of that. Instead, what we got was a script that was almost line-for-line as the original, a bunch of frown-faced pretentious CGI-altered animals and new performances of old songs instead of originals (or at least original covers). This Lion King resembled more of a “re-do” than a remake. But, maybe I set my bar way too high. Maybe I was asking for too much.
Despite not changing practically anything from its prototype, Favreau and his team decided to change the setting for the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene, when Simba and Nala rekindle as older lions, to a playful daytime rendezvous – one of the truest scenes in the film that actually should’ve never been touched and kept authentic. Now, the scene makes no sense because the animals are frolicking around in daylight to a song about the night. That lack of detail, and honestly common sense, probably angered me the most.
I wouldn’t say this Lion King is bad, but it certainly fell way short of the majority of expectations. The main reason for this is the lack of emotion you get from watching it. Why is it emotionless? Because it’s basically a carbon copy replica. When your first watch Mufasa fall to his death in the original film, you can feel Simba’s heartbreak and you share in it with him. Now, seeing it play out in a setting that should tug at your heart even more so since its “real,” you simply find yourself watching it play out like a cold-blooded, apathetic animal who would see such a thing happen in front of them in the real jungle. Naturally, if the audience can’t connect with a scene or its characters, it will quickly become disconnected.
The Lion King was like seeing an old friend who still lives in your old neighborhood and still does the same stuff they did 25 years ago. It’s exciting for a minute, but ultimately is disappointing and numb. The lack of any meaningful originality added killed it for me. Despite a visually beautiful backdrop, and exceptional performances specifically by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, Donald Glover as Simba and Chiwetel Ojiofor as Scar, this version of The Lion King doesn’t even compare to its precursor, or even the broadway version for that matter. It’s an emotionless, forgettable experience. Jon Favreau is so much better than this, and The Lion King legacy deserved much more than this. Kids today may enjoy it, but us “old millennials” who were sitting in those same seats 24 years ago know better.
MATTER RATING: 6/10
OSCAR SCALE: 7/10 (Best Visual Effects, Original Score, Song from a Motion Picture)
BY: CHRIS GUEST