Ah, The Lion King. The original 1994 version of this movie is quite literally a perfect movie; it’s a film that sparked a phenomenon of an eternal and universal story. The Lion King is the crown jewel of Disney’s legendary catalog, so only the highest of standards were set for the 2019 retelling of the film. With a shocking 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, one would assume the new Lion King remake was some sort of disaster or abomination. There are two main things that clouded many critic reviews that I will try my hardest to exclude from this review: nostalgia and contempt for Disney’s continued monopolization of the film and television industries.
The Lion King is my favorite movie of all time. I know the words to every song and can even repeat dialogue from my favorite scenes. The 2019 cast includes Donald Glover (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar) Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Nala), Alfre Woodard (Sarabi), John Oliver (Zazu), John Kani (Rafiki), Keegan Michael-Key (Kamari), Florence Kasumba (Shenzi), Eric André (Azizi), JD McCrary (young Simba), and Shahadi Wright-Joseph (young Nala). With one of the most stacked and talented casts to every assemble in a single movie, obviously expectations were high.
Thankfully, Jon Favreau’s reimagining of The Lion King is a glorious technical marvel and a thoroughly enjoyable film. Favreau closely followed the original template of The Lion King and chose not to deviate too wildly from the 1994 version. This was a smart choice, The Lion King is one of those works of art that you just don’t tinker around with. With a combination of illustration, CGI, and visual reality technology, the new version of The Lion King is visually stunning. The movie is photorealistic to the point where, if not for the singing animals, it could easily pass as a Planet Earth documentary. Many of the iconic shots are recreated beautifully (Simba and Mufasa gazing over Pride Rock, the “Circle of Life,” and the stampede). The new live-action version does sacrifice some of the emotion of the original. For example, the “Hakuna Matata” sequence could have benefitted from the vibrance and color of the original, but with excellent scene-stealing voice work from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, the scene still excels.
Eichner and Rogen are undeniably the stars of 2019’s The Lion King. The two comedians flex their prowess with surprisingly solid singing performances and hilarious improvisation. In fact, anytime Timon and Pumbaa were on stage, the audience was roaring with laughter. Chiewetel Ejiofor’s Scar was equally as sinister and even more bone-chilling than the original. Outside of Eichner and Rogen, Ejiofor gave the most impactful performance along with Florence Kasumba. Eric André, Keegan Michael-Key, and John Oliver, were incredibly funny and helped provide comic relief in what is sneakily a tragic story. Young Simba and Nala were absolutely adorable, and set the chemistry between the characters perfectly for their reunion as adults.
The last time Beyoncé did voice acting (Queen Tara in 2013’s Epic), it was not her finest moment. She is a solid actor (Dreamgirls, Cadillac Records, etc.), but she truly outdid herself in The Lion King. There’s a scene where Nala takes a jab at Simba’s immaturity to get him to come back home and save Pride Rock, and Beyoncé delivers the lines with just the right mix of disappointment and love. Also, in this new Lion King, Nala and Sarabi are fighters. The two lion queens fight right alongside Simba in the final battle scene, and their strength and power almost outshines him. Finally, Donald Glover gave perhaps the weakest and most disappointing performance out of the entire cast. Glover has an emotionless voice that works great on dark comedies like Atlanta, but he needed to sound a lot more regal to pull off adult Simba, and he just didn’t quite get there. His singing was fine but Billy Eichner stole the show on “Hakuna Matata” and Beyoncé makes you forget there’s another vocalist on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Nevertheless, the performance was passable, just disappointing knowing how talented Glover is.
In terms of the visual aspects of the film, such realistic animals moving their mouths and “speaking” and “singing” is initially jarring, but eventually not a problem at all. The main new element that the 2019 version brings is that a live-action Lion King intensifies the themes of tragedy, trauma, and violence in a way that was softened by 2D animation. This works very well because cartoon animals can show emotion in ways a live-action film will never be able to. The excellent voice acting and stunning visual effects provide all the emotion necessary. For those who grew up on the original, 2019’s Lion King may not be the movie for you. Regardless, for the hundreds of thousands of children that will be introduced to this iconic story for the first time, 2019’s The Lion King is an excellent and worthy choice.
Read my review of Beyoncé’s Lion King-inspired The Gift album here.