“Everybody’s a somebody. Even a nobody.”
Disney has a lot to be proud of by way of Jon Favreau’s gorgeous live-action reimagining of their beloved 1994 animated classic The Lion King. Not only does the recreation live up to the hype that has been steadily climbing for the last eighteen months, but the studio has, in essence, successfully done the unthinkable by crafting a film that pays homage to the original - even if that abundant homage proves to be its most notable downfall.
Capturing the raw beauty that exists within nature, Favreau pays close attention to detail, ensuring that everything has a purpose and adds to the film's strong visual aesthetic. But more than that The Lion King beholds a unique respect for both its kingdom of characters and their home, the Pride Lands; at least when centered on the film’s visual qualities.
The film’s central story thankfully remains unchanged as we watch Simba, the kingdom’s newly born prince, seek out adventures to showcase his courage and prepare him to be a “mighty” king - often at the hands of bad advice from his jealous and conniving uncle, Scar. When Scar successfully sets in motion his brother’s demise, it is Simba who finds himself on the outside looking in, forgoing his crown (and family) for the sake of a simpler life.
The film required nothing less than a juggernaut cast, which in and of itself was a massive undertaking. Donald Glover and Beyoncé more than handled the leading roles, embodying the energy and passion of Simba and Nala, respectively. However, the film is not able to rest on the talents of its two heavy hitters, especially considering that neither arrive until the hour mark. The entire cast boast of notable talent that somehow utilizes their familiar voices without allowing it to become a distraction to the story.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is dynamic in crafting the villainous Scar while both Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner provide scene-stealing turns as unlikely pals Pumbaa and Timon. However, none compare to the beautifully enriched and powerful performance from James Earl Jones, who returns to effortlessly gives Mufasa the heart and soul required to challenge his young son’s need for adventure.
That said, at its core, The Lion King is a formulaic retelling that fails to capture the energy of its story, and all but refusing to generate the passion that allowed the original film to excel and become one of the most popular animated films of all time. It was a tall order; revisiting a property that many consider to be perfect in its present form, and Favreau did a tremendous job at reintroducing the film to a new generation of potential fans. But the excitement, fear, frustration, and ultimate retribution that I felt throughout Simba’s unlikely journey was more self-inflicted than an actual response to the film itself.
The original The Lion King was a staple to my childhood and represented many reasons why I love film to the level that I do. The live-action remake does well to create a sense of nostalgia, almost piggybacking on those emotions, without furthering the adventure or experience. While this film is far better than recent Disney remakes, its nucleus isn’t much to get excited for - unless we revert to the previously applauded visuals.
Many will be satisfied with the opening sequence, a near shot-for-shot recreation of the original, and most will bask in the greatness that is Elton John’s “Circle of Life.” But the 2019 version of The Lion King doesn’t do the near-impossible, upping its predecessor, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. The update is more of a companion piece, a second, slightly washed-down offering if you will. And that’s okay. The film is still entertaining and will be adored by the masses if nothing else on namesake alone. But in truth, it most successfully reminds us just how rare a feat the original was.