Is Simba really just a lion?
Rating: 3.8/5 (props for the tech; poops for remaking an inimitable icon)
SPOILERS: If you’ve not seen the original by now, what on Earth have you been doing for the past 25 years? Go watch it. Then, once your heart has been wrenched from your chest and replaced with an overwhelming sense of love and belonging, come back and read this review to efficiently avoid the following spoilers it unashamedly contains.
In the circle of Disney’s live-action remakes, The Lion King (2019) is no different - it’s a classic, beloved story that’s now living Hakuna Matata, for the sake of churning out that dollar. Disney needs to return to Pride Rock, get some, and use their incredible new tech on some original stories rather than tarring old ones. There’s absolutely no disputing that the remake of the 1994 legendary animation classic is a modern-day masterpiece in CGI animation. However, we’re barely allowed to admire it as a thing of beauty. With sharp cuts, too fast-paced shots, and a distracting IMAX 1:43:1 aspect ratio, The Lion King has left this 90s baby feeling nostalgic, amazed, and a little disappointed. No surprise - those were some very big paw prints to fill.
Modernising a Classic
The original story is kept to fairly closely, which was a great decision by Jon Favreau. I’d say you can’t improve perfection, but I was pleased to see that attempts had been made to update the storytelling somewhat, and not just in terms of it’s CGI creation. Disney’s original questionable social-stereotype gags have been replaced with acceptance and celebration (read on for more about Billy Eishner’s Timon), and misguided historical motifs from the original have thankfully been removed (does anyone need to be reminded of “Be Prepared”’s Nazi-eque goose-stepping?). But within the adaptation, it’s unusual to hear some of the altered dialogue. No doubt Simba saying “Boom” as a serious line of dialogue won’t phase younger audiences, but it seemed a cheap way of bringing the character up to date when so much more could have been done to express his inner turmoil, updating him through emotional character development rather than dropping in ‘hip’ language that will no doubt be out of date again in a few years time.
The Lion King remake boasts an all-star cast, and the voice talent we hear truly is a treat. With vocals from Donald Glover (Simba) and Beyoncé (Nala), and rising talents in their younger counterparts (JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph playing the younger characters) ensure that these two protagonists provide powerful performances. But, I don’t believe these are the casting hits of the movie as a whole. While Glover and Beyoncé provide overwhelming talent to the musical numbers, the voice performance of Nala’s dialogue somehow falls short - something I never thought I’d say of Beyoncé.
The Problem with Beyoncé
While it’s an admirable decision to attempt to enhance Nala’s powerful nature as a strong female lead, Beyoncé’s heady, breathy performance applies too much agency to every single line Nala has - the power in her words is lost through overuse, and so her character as a whole becomes reduced to a strong yet sensualised character, who is missing her original camaraderie with Simba. She’s visibly muscular and powerful which is a brilliant representation of a female lead - who can literally take on her male counterpart (worth noting though, that this isn’t a modern addition to the character) - but the voice casting choice here leaves her potentially excellent female-forward character actually lacking some of her original heart and soul, as she becomes not a strong voice of reason, friendship and love for Simba, but instead a romantic, seductively powerful influence over him. Which is fine in the animal kingdom, but damnit - this is Disney. Nala’s strength should lie in her integrity, not in her husky, dulcet tones. The decision to cast Beyoncé in this instance is, for me, a poor one. Whether or not I feel this way about it because I know Beyoncé is voicing her is beside the point, or rather, is the point entirely: Nala is dwarfed by Beyoncé, which does a huge disservice to her character not just in terms of staying true to the original film, but to the female lead generally. She’s been reduced to nothing more than a 2010s pop icon, not a future leader of the pride. In our current social female climate, how does this reflect - is being an emotionally strong, quietly courageous, and wholly genuine female now not enough? As a lost twenty-something film grad, should I really be aspiring to be as unattainably powerful, sultry and influential as a global megastar? I also read that in the film’s promotional material, a photoshoot of the cast actually didn’t feature Beyoncé as she didn’t attend - they had to Photoshop her in among her cast members. That’s not very kind to the rest of the pride. This, and the fact that Beyoncé has also released new music inspired by her experience with The Lion King (2019), furthermore takes away any agency from Nala as a character and instead replaces her with Beyoncé’s pop career, influence and superstar status. The Lion King as a brand has almost been hijacked by Beyoncé, which rightly or wrongly, has altered the whole dynamic of the film. In short, Nala is nothing in this 2019 remake, and I for one am very sad to see her go.
Similarly, a casting faux pas became immediately evident in the work of John Oliver, who offers a good performance but through no fault of his own, the character of Zazu falls flat. The creators here have overlooked the importance of Zazu as a character, (and of the original voice performed by Rowan Atkinson), as he loses not only some of his gags, but also some of his character development - we’re not afforded any opportunity to understand Zazu’s caring nature, and he becomes an annoying rather than funny supporting character. He had the agency to simultaneously build tension and offer comic relief, but his shortened appearance in the remake and slightly off-the-mark casting just don’t provide the relief we need.
Who we all really paid to see - Timon and Pumbaa
But, all is not lost in terms of voices. Seth Rogan (Pumbaa) and Billy Eichner (Timon) are outstanding in this remake, offering a beautifully fresh and rich take on the comedy duo. While both roles hold a lot of heart from the original movie, Eichner in particular managed to round Timon’s character into a developed meerkat with personality, not just an overarching belief of Hakuna-Matata (which of course, is still true). It’s impressive to watch the on-screen relationship between Timon and Pumbaa unfold, and their characters have been fantastically brought up to date. With cheap fart gags and clear sarcasm throughout their dialogue, this is the most impressive duo of the film - a shame for Simba and Nala. John Kani also provides a fantastic voice to Rafiki, wholly embodying the characters spirit through his voice - though, I did miss his iconic laughter. The casting of the original James Earl Jones (Mufasa) was of course the best decision for the role, and he performs it as beautifully as ever. I just wish some of the other characters had been recognised as important original roles, because most fell short of the mark.
CGI, or CG-Why
One of the film’s biggest successes is also its biggest downfall. The CGI animation is of course excellent, with awe-inducing vistas, fur, and glistening eyes of all the beautifully created characters. The power, beauty and grace of the animals has been carefully portrayed and painstakingly created, and watching the lions navigate tricky terrain at speed really is a sight to behold, and a testament to the animation/CGI team. However, the live-action element of this film also errs on the side of uncanny - lions, warthogs, and hyenas don’t really emote. Their main way of expressing themselves is through physical prowess, which highlights these animals in either an unfazed and unbothered demeanour, or as violent and explosive - there’s no in-between. Mufasa’s death and Simba’s reaction are of course heart-wrenching still in terms of themes and story, but Simba’s grief is bypassed by the increasing attention brought to the character of Scar. Similarly, while Simba is living in the jungle with Timon and Pumbaa, his inner turmoil isn’t fully expressed, which is a huge shame for not only the character’s development but for new audiences, who will never quite understand the effect of Scar’s manipulation on him. I felt that this could have been explored so much more, and used as a way of once again updating the storyline - a strong male lead addressing emotional trauma - but poor Simba was left to stew emotionless over the death of his father.
Look at the pretty music
The musical numbers borrowed from the original score are thankfully still as powerful today as they were originally, and are fantastically performed by the actors to round the story and finally pay homage to the original movie. The newer numbers however, seem to punctuate the film in a different way - they don’t have any narrative agency, and are actually somewhat forgettable in the grand scheme of the film. While they’re nice (read inoffensive) and modern in their own right, they only serve to enhance the atmosphere surrounding Pride Rock and the wilderness, rather than drive the story forward. While the lack of theatrical dance isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this movie (see “Be Prepared”’s greatest downfall, above), it lacks vibrancy in other ways. The musical numbers are actually lacking visually - bear with me here. Favreau has clearly tried to encapsulate some of the orchestrated visual choreography that the original held, but in its new CGI imagery, its impact just isn’t there. Watching the giraffes lift their heads in cannon just isn’t nearly as satisfying when it’s not in brightly coloured 2D planes, and any onscreen symmetry is simply lost into an over-processed, arguably unnecessary recreation of the world that seamlessly blends into itself.
It’s The Circle Of Unnecessary-Disney-Remakes!
Aside from the unashamed bashing I’ve given this remake above, I did genuinely enjoy the film as a whole. For new audiences, this will be a phenomenal film unlike most - the ‘live-action lions’ and African wilderness are going to be mesmerising. But for the rest of us who have seen the original, I think we all know before we go see it that it’s going to be missing something. And really, isn’t that why we’ve gone to see it? The original was so beloved, that we can’t help but defend it, and will pay our money to do so. Unfortunately, it’s our nostalgic generation that are pumping the money back into Disney while not loving the products - we’re the main contributors to it’s growing $1 billion gross (and it’s been two weeks since its release). In business terms, it’s a genius move by Disney - they’re toying with the tired, nostalgic little minds of Generation X, capitalising on our pitiful incomes and desire to be back in the 90s when we had no student debts. But in terms of animation, this is a fittingly status-quo move for Disney, who have repeatedly churned out “live action” remakes as though we asked for them. Sure, CGI is great and all, but what’s new? At least let us look at how pretty it is before you snap the shots away for the sake of filling your time constraints. Granted, I didn’t see the movie in IMAX as it was intended, but really - who sees IMAX anymore? It’s a poor shot at Disney trying to give us what they think we want. But let’s be honest, who else is sick of 3D animation being spoken about as though it’s brand new? 3D has been around since the 1950s (albeit in a more primitive form), and CGI is only awe-inspiring if we get to see it for more than a second. It seemed rushed, somehow. Actual audiences now need stories for escapism more than ever, in our current political, social and economic climate, which Disney - and many other studios - seem to overlook. Is anyone realistically going to pay the extra to see this in IMAX, when regular tickets are now upwards of £15 each in the UK? It’s a misguided move to place the whole movie in an IMAX frame, and this misinformed assumption of how I’d be viewing the movie (hello - what’s it going to look like on my laptop when it’s on Netflix?) really bothered me throughout. Don’t tell me what to do, Disney!
How about next time, we get a colourful, slightly expressionist, heart-felt musical movie about friendship, family and the African savannah? Ground-breaking.