Review: ‘The Lion King’ 2019 (photo-realistic orchiectomy edition)

Something’s missing from Nat Geo Wild’s “Pride Rock Adventure” (no disclaimer needed).

With the same name as the 1994 Disney animated classic, our story begins with the birth of Simba (JD McCrary), son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and heir to Pride Rock. His uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) still yearns for the kingdom himself, hatching a plan to get rid of any competition– new or old. As an adult, Simba (Donald Glover) is given the opportunity to redeem himself when his grown-up childhood friend Nala (Beyoncรฉ Knowles-Carter) arrives seeking help. With the assistance of new friends Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Simba returns to Pride Rock to reclaim his birthright… and oh yeah, everyone’s an animal.

It’s nigh-impossible to spoil a beloved 25 year-old film. Regardless of whether one is a fan or not, it was a given that Disney would eventually do a live-action version on the heels of The Jungle Book remake becoming a success. Taking no chances, Jon Favreau was tapped again for directorial duties. With the ever-improving technology of photo-realistic computer-generated imagery, the question remains: was anything really added by remaking the film this way other than putting more cash into Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin?

As was done with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, this 2019 version of The Lion King does what previous animated-to-live Disney remakes have done: duplicate the big money-shot moments and songs, then enhance the story where possible without fundamentally changing it. (Edit: it’s also their most eye-popping gorgeous digital renderings to date, from sunsets and thunderstorms to grass blades and pill bugs). There’s also another consistency: adding twenty to thirty minutes of padding because real people don’t move as frenetically as cartoon characters, or in Aladdin’s case, as fast as Robin Williams could talk. With all of the child fans now adults, these live remakes typically venture into more adult moments, swapping G-rated fare for PG clarity… and this is where Pride Rock falls short. By creating footage that looks amazingly like a National Geographic nature special, Disney hasn’t just made their big cats seem more toothless; it lacks figurative as well as literal balls.

This wasn’t a problem with an animated production; story representation was everything, from falling into a cloud of dust to Mufasa looking like he was merely asleep. While the Marvel Comics Universe of films is well-known for being virtually bloodless — plus the Hulk also being “packageless” — an elephant graveyard littered with bones didn’t get that way all on its own. (Edit: this is a known issue with photo-real rendering. Whenever things look too good, inconsistencies jump out like movement in a still-life; the mind may not know exactly what’s wrong but notices anyway). Aside from Scar sporting his namesake across his face (and finally an explanation as to how) animals that stop jabbering and start fighting don’t obey rules of combat; they’re fighting for their lives, and it’s going to be fur-flyingly and flesh-rippingly bloody.

Other than this and fun extras with fan-favorites Timon and Pumbaa, it’s essentially a shot-for-shot remake with everything viewers remember using a mostly new voice cast, although Jeremy Irons’ growling as Scar is sorely missed (along with most of his villain’s song and all that nationalist bad-guy imagery). Of all of Disney’s animated films remade for live-action so far, this one stands out as the least enhanced story-wise for doing so. The remake is simply visually more realistic… except for anything sexually or violently explicit; no lion-on-lion action in any context. This begs the question: if it was so important ensuring the lions were ball-less (never mind what those crazy hyenas got going on), why not have a stork deliver cub Simba to his parents — you know, as long as we’re keeping things on the down-low on the down-low?

The Lion King 2019 is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, some thematic elements, and family friendly undercarriages.

Three skull recommendation out of four

One comment

  1. I feel as though something was lost in the 2019 remake that felt more alive in the 1994 version. Animation allows for exaggeration that cannot exist in the photo-real, or else it would look like something out of Jim Carrey’s The Mask and undermine credibility. This is and always was the trade-off.

    If you’ve never seen The Lion King before, it would be a remarkable achievement… but the original still has that something-something that the rework just didn’t achieve, IMHO — hence the 3-skull vs 4-skull rating. Your mileage may vary. ๐Ÿ’€

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