Confession time: I’ve never really liked The Lion King. During the great animated Disney resurgence of the late-80s through mid-90s, the white boxed VHS cassettes my sister and I had playing on repeat were Aladdin and the rereleased 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps it was the hard-to-watch trauma at the core of the animated Lion King. Perhaps growing up in Africa I was less dazzled by the novelty of the movie’s savannah setting. For whatever reason, I wasn’t part of that large group who regard 1994’s The Lion King as the pinnacle of that specific Disney period.

So, with early word for the “live-action” Lion King remake being mixed, and having zero nostalgic leanings, I didn’t have high expectations going into the press screening. Coming out, though, I can say that I absolutely loved it. The new Lion King has its flaws, certainly, but visually it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before, with the CGI reaching a new pinnacle of convincing realism. Watch The Lion King 2019 on as big a screen as you can.

Evidently, some reviewers have found the animal characters far less expressive than their painted celluloid counterparts. However, the greatest pleasure I received from the remake was seeing how the filmmakers translated anthropomorphic cartoon animals into hyper-real creatures that look like they wandered straight out of BBC Earth. If you can’t have lions gesticulating by waving their paws around, or hyenas arching a brow and wagging a rubbery tongue, how do you bring that emotion through in the natural behaviour, movement and general character design of the animals?

Actor-filmmaker Jon “Happy Hogan” Favreau, who also helmed the wildly successful Jungle Book, has pulled off impossible visual magic yet again with his team of animators and all-star voice cast. The latter is called upon to do some emotional heavy lifting, and the performers are universally good to fantastic – even if some are better singers than others. (*Cough* Not you, Chiwetel Ejiofor).

If for some bizarre reason you are unfamiliar with the plot of The Lion King, it’s a vaguely sketched Hamlet with lions. Following the death of his father, Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones), the king of the pride lands, lion cub Simba is convinced that the incident is his fault. He flees, leaving his scheming uncle Scar (Ejiofor), along with the local hyena pack, to seize the kingdom. Adult Simba (Donald Glover), aided by allies like lioness Nala (Beyonce), warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) must confront his uncle, his guilt and the weight of his father’s legacy to restore balance to the great “Circle of Life.”

Now the live-action Lion King is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the animated original, complete with the same Elton John-Tim Rice songs and Hans Zimmer’s score. While this may rob the movie of some energy at key moments – the famous wildebeest stampede is surprisingly subdued – such an approach here doesn’t feel as suffocating as it did in the legitimately live-action and human-populated Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps it’s the constant translation process from cartoon to photo-realism. Perhaps it’s the welcome freshness and naturalism of the vocal performances, which makes settling on a favourite difficult. Either way, I never felt bored, which is an achievement given the predictability inherent to remakes by their nature.

It honestly would have been better if The Lion King 2019 played a bit more fast and loose with its source material. Truly daring would have been to tell the story nature documentary-style, with zero talking, but the film would’ve also benefitted from simply spending more time layering familiar moments and figures. As one example, while a big deal was made about James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa from the 1994 film, his presence is actually a distraction when you have newcomers like Ejiofor providing their own original take on established characters. Ejiofor injects a gritty gravitas into Scar, which is quite different from Jeremy Irons’s portrayal in the 90s, drenched in smooth, classic villainy. Meanwhile, Glover’s Simba has a breezy, “no worries” charm much like the actor.  

As for scene-stealers, John Kani as mandrill Rafiki is a delight, and Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre provide an updated comical take on the hyenas. This said, the crowd-pleasers are certain to be – as they were in the original film – Timon and Pumba. Eichner and Rogan provide all-new punny banter of their own as they attempt to get Simba to embrace their live-in-the-moment Epicurean lifestyle. This said, given his campy vocal leanings, I did keep half-expecting Eichner’s Timon to say “Honey badger don’t give a shit” at some point.

I’m still stunned how much I enjoyed the new Lion King. Despite a lack of freshness, it’s easy to get caught up in the sense of wonder it creates as a result of its consistent visual wizardry. Definitely worth watching, and definitely the best of this year’s batch of live-action Disney remakes.

Last Updated: July 17, 2019

The Lion King
Ignore the naysayers. The photo-realistic Lion King remake is a fascinating feast for the eyes, features strong voice acting and still manages to produce a sense of wonder despite its near shot-for-shot nature. Absolutely worth (re)experiencing.
9.0
/10
55/ 100

43 Comments

  1. HvR

    July 17, 2019 at 11:38

    Only here for the life action vs animation memes.

    Reply

  2. Viper_ZA

    July 17, 2019 at 12:04

    Will wait for the good ol’ Blu Ray / 4K 😛

    Reply

  3. Matthew Figueira

    July 17, 2019 at 12:40

    I can’t freaking wait to watch this! Great review, Noelle 🙂

    Reply

  4. Dr Webster Flexington MD

    July 17, 2019 at 12:49

    Am I the only person here who loved the original Lion King…?

    Reply

    • Se7en Sharon Needles

      July 17, 2019 at 15:34

    • Tbone187

      July 17, 2019 at 12:59

      Nope, it’s a classic!

      Reply

      • Dr Webster Flexington MD

        July 17, 2019 at 12:59

        Bless your little cotton socks man. For a second, I thought I was stuck in the upside down. One of my fondest memories is watching it with one of my younger cousins, and she would insist on rewatching it lol.

        Reply

        • Tbone187

          July 17, 2019 at 13:09

          Yup..Myself and my cousin in the cinema. My aunt crying for Mufasa.Pretending to be Scar… Of course the mega drive game….etc.etc.good times!

          Reply

          • Webster Flexington

            July 17, 2019 at 17:22

            I literally forgot about that mega drive game.

          • Tbone187

            July 18, 2019 at 11:15

            ’twas a well crafted platform game for it’s time.

  5. For the Emperor!

    July 17, 2019 at 11:29

    Confession time: I’ve never really liked watched The Lion King. But I may make a plan for this one…

    Reply

    • Kervyn Cloete

      July 17, 2019 at 11:38

      I actually don’t really have much love for the classic Disney animated movies. When those movies were in their heyday, I was a teen busy falling in love with anime. So they were nice and all, but there’s no fervent emotional connection to any of them. Hence why I’m pretty apathetic towards most of these live-action remakes.

      Reply

    • Dr Webster Flexington MD

      July 17, 2019 at 19:04

      It’s actually a lot easier to catch up with these movies if you have a young one. Not only will you rewatch them but you’ll learn to LOVE THEM! 10 000 more Frozen viewings to go!

      Reply

  6. Dr Webster Flexington MD

    July 17, 2019 at 12:49

    Nah, I’ll pass. I’m not going to support these remakes. Disney needs to stop being creatively bankrupt.

    By the way, what’s up with the CGI? Jumanji 1 (back in the stone age of 1995) managed to have more believable CGI animals. How is this possible? HOW IS THIS FREAKING POSSIBLE? Did they use unpaid interns for this? Did they ask students to do the animation? These things are nightmare fodder!!! You’re going to emotionally scar kids with this movie.

    Reply

    • Dr Webster Flexington MD

      July 17, 2019 at 12:49

      I would never have thought that it’s possible to have an uncanny valley effect on CGI animals…. This is utterly amazing.

      Reply

    • HvR

      July 17, 2019 at 13:55

      I think it is the combination of the animals talking and doing the dance moves but trying to keep them “natural”.

      Same reason I disliked the remake of Jungle Book.

      Reply

      • Dr Webster Flexington MD

        July 17, 2019 at 13:55

        Yeah, I remember that panther looked really weird, but this seems worse though.

        Reply

  7. RinceThis

    July 17, 2019 at 19:23

    Great review. I am very excited to watch it! 🙂

    Reply

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