The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019) Review: Not Feeling the Love Tonight

The Lion King

Movie Rating:


When The Lion King came out in 1994, it helped solidify the Disney renaissance of that era. The film felt fresh, original, and entirely engaging. Decades on, that sense of wonder and experimentation is mostly erased in Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI remake, which feels far more redundant than revelatory.

Much of the fault of this version lays in the obvious unnecessity of its being. Even granting the fact that Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book told new elements of its tale in a different way, here the original looms even higher than Pride Rock.

The cast is suitably Tweet-worthy. James Earl Jones effortlessly towers over his other collaborators with a voice that still feels like it plunders the depths of one’s soul. Chiwetel Ejoifor takes on Scar, and while he lacks Jeremy Irons’ oily menace, it’s still a welcome take. Alfre Woodard is regal as Sarabi, John Kani brings a welcome authenticity as Rafiki, and Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre are adequate as the hyenas. Beyoncé’s role as Nala has been expanded, including a new song called “Spirit” (which is well recorded but feels out of place), and does well with the part.

The biggest surprise, not in a positive way, is Donald Glover. His singing, especially against Beyoncé’s, simply doesn’t mesh, and his Simba comes across more petulant than profound. The performance shows some limitations in his craft that aren’t often exposed, and it’s the most jarring part of the entire proceeding.

John Oliver and Seth Rogan do a bunch of “talk-singing” to get through the hard bits, but Billy Eichner can carry a tune fairly well. Their characters – Zazu, Pumbaa, and Timon respectfully – constantly riff on the differences from this Lion King to previous versions, both on stage and screen. Their playfulness feels over-rehearsed, as per the years-long slog of putting a film like this together, but they’re at least having fun and bringing us along for the ride.

The songs themselves are satisfactory if unremarkable cover versions of what we heard before. Pharrell Williams worked with Hans Zimmer and company to inject a bit of modern R&B flavor. It’s fine, but a general sense of complacent acceptance governs much of the film in many respects.

Visually, the models of the animals are truly astonishing, and it’s easy to be jaded about the armies of individuals who worked to make that happen. Still, they lack real connection, resulting in a kind of “deep fake” approach where things feel just a tiny bit off. The most cinematic, sweeping moments are directly evocative of the animated original, which only serves to remind us of the brilliant, cinematic audacity of the hand-drawn (with CGI augmentation) version, and how little visually Favreau has actually added to this landscape.

This all comes back to a tired if still accurate worry – what’s the point? The stage play by Julie Taymor (a credited executive producer here) shows that a radical reinterpretation that maintains the core elements of the story can be quite extraordinary. I would have loved if Favreau mixed it all up – really ripped the songs apart, made Pride Rock less overtly identical, or messed with the story in surprising ways. That may have interfered with the film’s commercial potential, but surely would have helped moved the legacy of The Lion King forward more than this film does.

Favreau’s remake neither flounders nor flourishes. This Lion King growls more than it roars.


      • Ryan

        Having not seen this yet….it doesn’t seem like it’s remotely similar to Cinderella. That one kept the core story, but it was certainly more than different enough (and DELIGHTFUL!)

  1. njscorpio

    I’m back, from reading the ‘Psycho’ Wiki…I recall seeing it in theaters, but I wanted to read about how and why it was so badly received, and I came across this quote about the ‘Psycho’ remake that may apply to Lion King 2019……

    Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the film one-and-a-half stars, wrote that the film “demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”

  2. EM

    Iʼve gotten a little tired of reviewsʼ calling a film unnecessary. As Scott McCloud put it in Understanding Comics, “Art…is any human activity which doesnʼt grow out of either of our speciesʼ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction!” I would say that art as a phenomenon is necessary to the human condition…but no particular individual work is. (Not that I want to launch into a discussion of Yesterday.)

    That all said—I have zero interest in ever seeing this flick.

    • Julian

      Yo EM, for the longest time, I have wanted to use an italic font on this site. How does one do it? Write before and after each italic word?

        • Julian

          Darn, I can’t even WRITE “” without this site understanding what I mean. Haha. Sorry, Josh, you are allowed to delete my Inception-esque posts.

          • EM

            Poor Julian. I think next he will be typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over…

            To display “<i>”, type “&lt;i&gt;”. To display “&lt;i&>”, type “&amp;lt;i&amp;gt;”. To display “&amp;amp;lt;i&amp;amp;gt;”. Et cetera ad nauseam.

    • Shannon Nutt

      Heh, it’s appearing more and more in reviews because Hollywood is currently going through the worst of trends: remaking what was once popular.

  3. Shannon Nutt

    Sadly, it will still make over $1 billion worldwide. It’s going to take several major flops for Disney to stop re-making all their old animated movies. I doubt Little Mermaid or Mulan will break that trend.

    • Julian

      That’s why we need ‘Atlantis’, ‘Treasure Planet’ and ‘The Dark Cauldron’. Because I want them, but also, because they will flop.

    • I’m hoping that the new Maleficent will flop and help break the trend. Just as the time gap hurt the Alice in Wonderland sequel, I’m hoping the time gap (although not as big as that of Alice) will cause a dip in attendance.

      • Julian

        Apparently, Tom Holland is being courted to play Milo in ‘Atlantis’. Fingers crossed. The original movie needs more love, so a live-action remake can only boost its profile.

  4. Wedjat Wakes

    What I find aggravating about these Disney remakes is the fact that they tend to exclude any of the quite beautiful ‘new’ songs that were produced for the Broadway versions of these movies. Beauty and the Beast excluded both ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ (Beast) and ‘Home’ (Belle). Though they did use some instrumental cues from ‘Home’ in the movie. Same thing for this Lion King. There’s a wonderful song where Simba is struggling to accept his destiny the night before his confrontation with Scar called ‘Endless Night’ It appears nowhere in the track list for the new film. Now, again, instrumental cues from the song are used in the trailer. I’m sure it’s all about licensing, rights, and royalties to the songwriters, but I’m positive they’re all owned by Disney. Heck, spread some of that Disney cash around to some people who most assuredly are not already millionaires.

  5. Chris Killingsworth

    The original Disney animated classic is very good, but I find it a bit too long.
    The Broadway stage version is amazing and fantastic.
    This does seem unnecessary, and I’m not interested.

        • Julian

          Trond: ‘The CGI King is 118 minutes.’
          Yeah, but Chris found the original a bit too long (at just 88 minutes).

          Josh: ‘most of the Elton John tunes are superfluous time-wasters.’
          I LOVE LOVE LOVE the soundtrack, and played it to death in 1994-1996, but de coloribus et gustibus non disputandum, of course.

          • Eh, the movie stops dead for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Even “Hakuna Matata” serves no actual narrative purpose. There’s definitely a great non-musical movie buried within this musical.

          • Julian

            I’d argue most musicals feature songs that serve no purpose, other than being (good/bad) songs. But let’s agree to disagree 🙂

          • Julian

            @Trond: ingen bekymringer for feil er menneskelig
            (let’s hope Google Translate didn’t make too many mistakes)

      • I’ll support Chris on this. I’ve always felt that The Lion King would be a stronger movie if you could excise most of the songs. Save for the “Circle of Life” opening, most of the Elton John tunes are superfluous time-wasters. I’d like to see a non-musical edit.

  6. The review I had read a few days ago says this film is “very much like Hamlet, and that’s why it is so good!”And thus far, the Disney remakes have been quite good, so I guess this remains to be seen as to whether I agree it is only a 2.5 star movie.

  7. Gary Waldock

    Hollywood is in a unimaginative, non-creative funk. The writers continue to plagiarize each other (and themselves) with no end to unwanted “retread” movies and TV in sight. Their idea of a “new direction” is to simply insert homosexual tendencies in familiar characters.

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