There are a lot of people out there that have a nearly reverential view of the 1994 animated version of The Lion King. We’re not among them. While we enjoyed it as kids and then again with our kids, it doesn’t stand out any more than a dozen other Disney films from that era. Despite that, we were plenty intrigued by a live-action version of The Lion King, more so than with Aladdin (which was pretty fun) or Dumbo (meh). Hakuna matata.
Following the birth of Simba (Donald Glover), the cub of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), the King tries to teach his son how to rule the pride lands. While Simba and best friend Nala (Beyonce) get up to mischief, the King’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots to replace his brother with the help of the local hyena population that isn’t allowed to hunt in the Pride Lands under Mufasa’s rule.
Scar manipulates the young Simba to enter a hyena hunting area in the hope that the young heir will be killed. When that fails he creates a situation where Simba is trapped in a stampede, summoning Mufasa to rescue his cub and ultimately killing him in the process. In the aftermath, Simba flees into exile while Scar, who says both are dead, becomes the new king, opening up the Pride Lands to the hyenas and removing any restrictions on hunting.
Under Scar’s rule, the Pride Lands become a desolate place, and one evening Nala decides to leave seeking help. Unbeknownst to anyone, Simba has grown up in a lush tropical area with friends Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan), ignorant to the plight of his home. When a chance encounter brings Simba and Nala back together, the young lion must decide whether to continue his carefree life or return to reclaim his birthright.
Visually, The Lion King looks consistently impressive with only a handful of moments here and there that really remind you that this is CGI. The attention to detail is excellent, and the way they’ve recreated some of the more iconic shots from the animated film is really cool. It’s not an easy thing to make animals look and behave like animals, and then still establish very human behaviours and motivations on top of it, but it feels effortless here.
We enjoyed, and in some cases preferred, the new cast, which we’re sure some will view as sacrilege — again, though, we weren’t die-hard fans of the original. Donald Glover is a better Simba than Matthew Broderick, whose voice always had a nasally tone to our ears, and Rogan was an inspired choice as Pumbaa. Probably the biggest upgrade is going from Rowan Atkinson, best known for playing the insipid Mr. Bean character, to John Oliver, who is perfect as Zazu. While change is good, it was still great to have James Earl Jones back.
There’s a bit of a darker tone to this version that we appreciated. Scar feels more menacing, as do the hyenas where their leader now has a nastier disposition, and the comedic elements of her two main subordinates have been toned down. It’s not as big of a switch as The Jungle Book, where Shere Khan is violent to the point that smaller children could have nightmares, but it’s noticeable.
It’s not a shot-by-shot remake, but The Lion King doesn’t stray far from the animated film, which feels like a missed opportunity for director Jon Favreau to put more of a stamp on his version. Yes, you had to play the hits — and the remade songs were fine, though we wouldn’t be surprised if they bothered long-time fans — but we would’ve gladly signed off on a little more with Mufasa or even Scar’s interactions with the pride (there’s a little bit added to Sarabi’s story, just not enough).
THE BONUS FEATURES
An in-depth look at the making of the film is the primary extra, and at nearly an hour it takes its time and doesn’t skimp on the behind-the-scenes footage. Some of the more interesting stuff is old footage from the animated version, like Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella riffing their lines together as Timon and Pumbaa. Pretty much everything else revolves around the songs, including music videos and a look at how they went storyboard to finished product.
Unless you’re completely turned off by Disney or its current strategy of remaking its classics, you’ll likely find the new version of The Lion King highly enjoyable. Given the choice between the two, we’d watch 2019 over 1994.