The Lion King Theatrical Release Poster

Movie Review: The Lion King


It’s inevitable. After such a critical success with Iron Man (2008), the very first movie which breathed life into MCU Phase 1, it came as little surprise that director Jon Favreau has got his lion’s share within the wave of remakes of Disney’s iconic animated films from the 90’s. Starting off with Jungle Book in 2016, Favreau proved to the top dogs of Disney once again that he’s a safe bet to helm their upcoming projects, and thus, naturally he got the nod to carry on with the remake of another animated classic: The Lion King.

Working with the screenplay written by Jeff Nathanson (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), the film stayed ultra faithful towards the 1994 animated film. Never mind the star studded voice casts which the film has enlisted for its iconic characters, knowing that James Earl Jones has returned to voice for Mufasa is simply enough. “Everything the light touches, is our kingdom”. But I reckon that every word that is coated by his hypnotizing voice does sound wiser and sagely.

There’s one lingering elephant in the room that we need to address before stepping further into Pride Lands. Contrary to what’s been bombarded by the media, The Lion King is technically not a live-action film. Disney simply stated that it would be ‘technologically groundbreaking’, and that’s about it. I prefer to call it photo-realistic visual effects. If you like, you can even call it an animated film with deeper pockets. I wouldn’t mind. 

The Lion King John Kani as Rafiki
“I went deep into Mount Kenya to capture this baboon footage for The Lion King.” Said no one ever. Source: Disney

With that out of the way, for a start, the visuals are undeniably impressive, but here lies my first qualm with the new King. It’s simply too perfect. Each strand of fur, each tree and each puddle of water is too flawless, that it lacks depth and grit. And despite the crew’s effort to try and mask every frame to unblemished perfection, there are still issues with some scenes which are intrinsically wrong, but slipped under their radar. Like how a super-realistic lion falling off a cliff can possibly yell out “argghhh!!” in the most human-like voice possible.

Before the release of the film, I was casually joking that the facial posters of the characters in The Lion King look like animal head-shots from National Geographic, and, who knew, now I’m disappointed. I realized that I would rather watch a documentary of ugly wild animals doing nothing, rather than looking at layers after layers of pretty CGI animals doing everything. 

To me, having to work with perfectly realistic looking CGI animals who have to talk and sing seems like an instant handicap to Favreau, that I was constantly wondering halfway down the film. What could potentially be the film’s hidden trick under the sleeve to play catch up? Is it the music? Or perhaps a tone change towards the end of the film?

The Lion King Elephants Graveyard
Even the most horrifying place in The Lion King has better beauty and symmetry than my face. Source: Disney

And, the irony is, once regarded as one of the traits of a good remake, it is now working against the new King. I am referring to how the story and screenplay stayed faithful to the 1994 animated film to almost perfection, it leaves absolutely no room for any creativity to be unleashed, or any scene to excite the veteran audience who are “gifted” with knowing the whole story. Your kids might get (moderately) pumped seeing the (fake) animals in action, but if you’re “gifted” like me, then going through the new Lion King will seem like a long chore.

After having to repeatedly dig out any clue of emotion from the talking-but-realistic lions, I soon realized that I was fighting a losing battle. I understand that to stay realistic, the animals have about 1mm of play around their mouths and eyebrows to express joy, sadness, disappointment and anger. So naturally, I am not impressed by the majority of the characters. I just couldn’t.

Regretfully, this includes prominent characters like Simba, Nala, Sarabi and Rafiki, which, make no mistake, are voiced by real talents. However, their works of art seems to be muted and taxidermied, buried under the endless layers of constraining CGI.

The Lion King Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar
The only way to turn a majestic lion into a villain, is to make it looking like a diseased cat. Source: Disney

With that said, going against the tide is James Earl Jones’ Mufasa, who made a pretty hefty impression though the character doesn’t enjoy much screen time like the others. And while Scar’s photo-realistic appearance doesn’t ring any bell within me, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s thundering voice makes up for a villain with a lot of presence. Still, the absolute show-stealers are definitely Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa and Billy Eichner’s Timon. It’s chemical reaction done right, which blends their voices, visual appearance and lines into a potent laughing gas. The bad news is, their comedic potential is used sparingly throughout the film, it limits them from being game-changing. 

Perpetuating its faith towards the story of the 1994 animated film, the plot stays in ‘business as usual’ mode until the final conflict, where an interesting observation piqued my interest. The script tried to lift the height of the tension during the final resolve that it’s noticeably ramping up the seriousness of the conflict. And yet, some familiar characters can be seen striving to make the audience laugh with their ineptitude and goofy charisma, treading down the path of a swashbuckling finale. These two elements pretty much dilute each other, and in the end, the third act exhibits conflicting identities, that it’s reasonably hard to establish what the film is trying to accomplish. 

Of course, judging from the treatment that Disney had given to the live-action Aladdin, it is unsurprising that new musical materials made way into The Lion King as well. In a way or another, the film did better than Aladdin, as Beyoncé’s “Spirit” fits in appropriately against the backdrop of Pride Lands. This is opposed to Naomi Scott’s “Speechless”, which seems like a new age music turning up uninvited in the remake of Aladdin. 

The Lion King Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon
Take a deep look at the warthog for 5 seconds. Did you just laugh?
Source: Disney

And if you’re not informed already, Disney still insisted on transitioning all the original, classic songs into the new movie, which includes “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. Frankly, I don’t really see the point of giving all the songs a second appearance in the supposedly grown up film template. Together with all other unidentified diet which the film has, showcasing all the songs contributed to the bloating up of screen time. Similar to the live-action Aladdin, The Lion King feels stretched with its 118 minutes and doesn’t enjoy that compact, dense and punchy plot progression that its predecessor has. 

Addict Verdict, AV: 

First, for the veteran crowd of audience, The Lion King experience, at best, will be like re-reading the same storybook with a different illustrator. Overall, it boils down to two things that we can never get in the new King: Believability and drama. It’s fundamentally hard to “believe” that the events of Pride Rock are actually happening mainly due to the talking and singing animals, but then, it’s even more so when everything just looks fakish-ly pristine and spotless. And the lack of drama, deep emotion and any element of surprise equals to watching those photo-realistic animals just doing Hakuna Matata throughout the film. Relaxed. Unmotivated. Uninspired. –The Film Addict