If you have not been following my tumultuous relationship with this movie, you should know I walked into the theater quite biased. I was not happy this movie was being made. I even went so far as to break down the trailer and interpret what this was movie was signaling to the viewers. I want you to know I walked into the theater feeling angry this movie existed and I left feeling sad that it does. To try and explain all my thoughts, I want to break down the opening scene, if you do not mind. If you are worried about spoilers, do not be. There will not be any other than this description. Besides, you have already seen this movie before if you have seen the original film.
The movie opens on the iconic red sun rising over the African plains, and it is gorgeous. It is exactly what the marketing promised: a true to life version of "The Lion King." This movie belongs to the VFX artists, and to them alone. What they were able to accomplish is unmatched by anything we have seen in cinema. It is masterful, and not a single shot feels out of place. There are multiple shots that could have been taken straight from a nature documentary. Hell, I half expected David Attenborough’s voice to start singing "The Circle of Life" over these incredible shots. You can feel how much time and research went into this film. From the way the lions move to the way the beetles scurry across the ground, it feels real. All of the wide shots feel like the real thing. I tip my hat to the artists who were able to accomplish such a feat; it is truly a monumental step forward in CGI.
As we watch all the animals assemble around Pride Rock, we suddenly spot Rafiki (curiously without his signature staff), as he walks towards and starts to climb Pride Rock where Mufasa awaits him. When he arrives, there is a moment of true friendship and respect as they embrace one another in a hug.
Except, they do not in this version, at least. In 2019’s "The Lion King," Rafiki simply places his hand on Mufasa’s head before walking past him to welcome Simba to the pride lands. It was this specific moment in which I felt my heart sink.
By establishing this incredible portrait of real life, you lose all sense of emotion. I do not mean to offend all the animal lovers out there. I would throw myself into that category, but real animals do not emote well. It is as simple as that. All Mufasa is able to do is close his eyes to acknowledge Rafiki. Compare that with the original in which he smiles and hugs his longtime friend, and it feels flat and meaningless. In a moment of joy shared between two longtime friends uniting, all I could feel was a longing for the original film.
The rest of the scene carries out exactly how you remember it does. Rafiki baptizes Simba with his red dye, carries him to the end of the rock and lifts him up for all the rest of the animals to see. Then, the iconic, smashing cut to the title screen, mirroring that of its 25-year-old predecessor.
I can feel many of you pausing. "Judge the film on its own," you cry. "Stop comparing it to the past!"
Trust me when I say I wish that I could, but the film itself does not allow me to. It is a shot-for-shot remake of the original, down to the exact camera angles. I found myself forming a checklist as the movie went on. I slowly ticked off each moment, each line, each camera movement as they happened. There were no surprises. Everything remained unchanged, just as I had remembered. I was bored. For those who have not ever seen "The Lion King," this is a great thing. "The Lion King" is great because of its story. However, most of us have seen the original, and this new adaptation does nothing to justify its own existence.
Let me touch on the few things they did change. They decided to give the hyenas some new lines. This is a welcome addition in theory, especially when you have Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andrew as two of your hyenas. Except, however, these lines were not funny. I did not laugh at a single one of their new lines or additional antics.
They also decided to give us a truncated, slam poetry version of Scar’s iconic song, “Be Prepared.” You read that right, a truncated slam poetry version of his villainous monologue put to music. Gone is the beautiful cinematography of the hyenas marching through the evil green light of the original. It is replaced by Chiewetel Ejiofor’s Scar climbing rocks as he rhymes out his evil plan. This, again, falls flat for me.
There was, however, an addition I very much enjoyed: the addition of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumba. They succeeded in giving a new life to these two beloved characters. They succeeded in making me laugh, quite a lot I might add. They also brought me joy in an otherwise joyless experience. Eichner’s voice is especially welcome, as he easily has the best voice of the entire cast and gave me chills multiple times during his few singing moments.
Touching on the singing for a moment, the songs are fine. There are a few slight changes here and there, but much of the music remains the same. It did feel weird, however, when Nala out sings Simba in his own song “Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” The new Beyonce song is fine, but it felt like a forced addition to pad the run time.
The rest of the cast is fine. Nobody else brought anything new or exciting to their roles. James Earl Jones returns as the voice of Mufasa, and he does just as good of a job as he did last time. If anything, I thought Ejiofor’s Scar was not as menacing or manipulative as Jeremy Irons’s interpretation of the character in the original. When Ejiofor delivers that iconic line to Simba, “I killed Mufasa” it, once again, fell flat. All I could hear was Irons delivering the line instead.
This leads me back around to what I was worried about originally. By stripping "The Lion King" of its original animation, you lose the emotional beats of the story. I watched the original battle for Pride Rock when I got home and the difference was saddening. You can see the fear in Simba’s eyes in the original. That same fear simply does not exist in the new version. Everything looks flat, because that is exactly what real life is most of the time.
That is why I left feeling sad. Everything that made the original so vibrant and fun to watch was stripped away for what is essentially a marketing tool. "Come see 'The Lion King' with new technology!" "Come see 'The Lion King' like how it would look in real life!"
However, I do not want to experience "The Lion King" in real life. The original animation is as beautiful as ever. Disney should save this technology for something fresh and new.
What does it matter anyway? Disney already has my $10. All they have to do is keep remaking their original properties over and over again, guaranteeing themselves hundreds of millions of dollars. All I have done is participate in what seems to be Disney’s new "circle of life."