Watching 2019 The Lion King remake feels like that old water drip torture. Every scene, you are forced to wonder at every beat why. Why does this movie exist? Why would someone think this was a good idea. Why am I here? And across 118 minutes, it offers no answers.
Leading up to it, there’s plenty of ways to tease out your own responses. The original film was not only a critical and commercial darling but it spawned one of the most successful Broadway shows in the history of Broadway, gave us one of the few good movie tie-in video games, and had an entire generation saying “Hakuna Matata.” And now, bringing it back amidst Disney’s remake blitz, capitalizing on big-name casting with the likes of Donald Glover as Simba and Beyoncé as Nala (and bringing back the legend James Earl Jones to reprise his old role of Mufasa) is of course going to result in unprecedented hype.
And all of that brings with it its own problems. Disney becoming a money-printing monopoly that is forcibly co-opting the entirety of pop folklore, stunt casting in voice acting roles, etc. But the biggest is that the crux of this remake is based on a fallacious premise: the presentation is immaterial to the story. To wit, the dogmatic dedication to making this completely digitally generated film look like live-action has turned a dramatically and dynamically visual story into a glacial, sleep-inducing technological showcase.
The biggest talking point is also the most obvious: the graphical fidelity. It is incontrovertible that these are the most realistic CG animals you have ever seen and are likely to ever see for the next several years. But it’s as if no one thought far ahead enough to wonder what they would do on a purely instinctual level once you start animating these huge safari beasts.
Seeing a photorealistic lion sing and dance is frightening. There is no charm because there is no charm in a real lion—only a base, animalistic respect. And being removed from it by not being in danger of a claw-based mauling simply puts a different dour sheen on it. It reeks of the carnival tamers that physically and psychologically abuse their animals to get them to perform. When it’s not terrifying, it’s just disturbing—sad. And it’s only ever those two feelings.
Unless you count the sensation of overwhelming familiarity in watching the scenes play out. The plot is identical to the original (which, in turn, is largely based on Hamlet), putting Simba in the middle of a decades-long power grab from his father’s younger and malicious brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that results in Mufasa’s death, Simba’s faux exile/faked death, and his eventual return for the throne. You get it.
Obviously, the retelling of a classic tale isn’t necessarily a problem on its own. Stories are just repackaging of old tropes and archetypes to explore hopefully new emotions and experiences. But this remake doesn’t seem interested in anything new unless you count the two original songs. (One of which is a blatant Oscar hunt and other is terrible.) It is shot-for-shot, line-for-line identical in the vast majority of cases, attempting to evoke the same emotions on the same beats as they did in 1994.
But it can’t. The grounded visual presentation inherently and categorically prohibits them from playing in the same field. The original worked by being a grandiose display of a simplified and stripped-down story. The dazzling, eye-bleedingly wonder of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” gives way to a dull, tepid trot through an African landscape. The heartbreaking exchange of a cloud-formed Mufasa to a young, lost Simba is now a lion staring at a cumulonimbus. There is a distinct, almost purposeful lack of import to these visuals.
Which is fine! If you’re telling a different story. It’s hard to not consider how the Planet of the Apes reboot succeeded where this failed. (Aside from having actual real humans to ground our suspension of disbelief, same as how director Jon Favreau also had an actual person in the middle of an otherwise entirely CG The Jungle Book.) Those same sorts of feelings of discomfort and incongruity were part and parcel of the story about these new primates replacing the old primates. The visuals emboldened the themes. Here, however, they detract.
It also doesn’t help that many of the voice actors don’t seem particularly interested in doing much more than getting through it. Beyoncé, for instance, sounds incredibly bored throughout, even though we know she can emote with the best of them since Dreamgirls. And this somewhat carries through to the songs, performed with about half the panache as either you would expect or the story demands. (The exceptions being Ejiofor along with Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa.)
The movie simply makes no argument for its own existence. Worse than that, an extended existence by thirty minutes from the original’s runtime. The only compelling argument it makes, in fact, is that Disney does not care about much of anything except making enough money to ensure that it has all of the money. Just don’t see The Lion King.
Final score: 4 out of 10