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The new live-action version of The Lion King arrives in theaters on July 18. It’s another remake of an animated classic, but does it do the original justice or bring anything new and worthwhile to the table? Read on for our full review.
With the new Lion King movie, Disney adds another film to the ever-growing list of animated classics given new life with a live-action remake. That is, depending who you ask–some view the new versions of movies like Dumbo, Aladdin, and soon Little Mermaid and Mulan as simply unnecessary, given that the classic original films largely still hold up when viewed today. However you see it, these remakes are apparently successful enough that Disney shows no signs of stopping the trend. So for now, one question remains: Is the live-action Lion King worth your time?
The new Lion King follows the original’s story closely. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) welcome their new cub, Simba (JD McCrary), into the Pride Lands while the king’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), plots against them. After Mufasa’s death, Simba (later voiced by Donald Glover) learns a new philosophy from Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), reunites with his childhood friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and later Beyoncé), has a chat with his cloud-dad (still James Earl Jones), and eventually returns to challenge Scar and his army of cackling hyenas.
Although the cast and script are largely new, only diehard Lion King fans who have seen the original movie recently will be able to point out more than a handful of significant changes. Most of those changes come in the form of new jokes, particularly when the hyenas Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric André), Rogen and Eichner’s Pumbaa and Timon, or the loyal hornbill Zazu (John Oliver) are on-screen. These comedic moments make the new Lion King worth seeing, particularly any scene featuring Rogen and Eichner, who manage to steal the entire movie with their unique takes on the iconic warthog and meerkat duo. New takes on iconic songs, particularly Glover and Beyoncé’s–and the lone new song, Beyoncé’s “Spirit”–are also worth hearing.
The live-action Lion King looks gorgeous as well–although the term “live-action” here is used somewhat loosely, since every character in the movie was created entirely with CG. That fact occasionally makes itself apparent with an odd animation or other attention-stealing quirk, but by and large this is some of the best CG ever seen. From lion to monkey to warthog to caterpillar, the creatures on display are unbelievably detailed and beautiful. They truly look photorealistic, particularly in close-ups on a lion or monkey’s face (you’d swear Rafiki, voiced by John Kani, was a real-life monkey). It does make it sometimes difficult to tell the lions apart, such as the grown-up Nala and Queen Sarabi, but the movie does an admirable job recreating the personality and charisma present in the original animation.
That’s just it, though: This is a recreation from beginning to end. Yes, there are new jokes and voice actors, but beat-for-beat, the 2019 Lion King simply rehashes the original in every essential way. There are no significant new scenes that add to our understanding of the characters, plot, or world of the Pride Lands, besides a slight expansion to Nala’s role in the latter half, and just a single new song. The story hasn’t been updated at all; Simba is still basically an entitled brat, and it takes literal divine intervention for him to listen to Nala and get off his lazy, grub-eating butt. Why the “circle of life” has a monarchy with absolute power over its subjects–not to mention why the Pride Lands needs a king at all (how about a queen this time around?)–are ideas that never get explored beyond the scope of what the original bothered to do. The Lion King is a simplistic, outdated fable when it comes down to it.
And if you’ve seen the original Lion King, you know almost everything that’s going to happen here, besides a few gags that will have you laughing but ultimately make little lasting impact. The new Lion King imparts a general feeling of wonder and love, but no more so than the original did, and walking out of the theater, it’s hard to avoid the sense that you’d feel the exact same if you had just re-watched the 1994 animated classic.
Some fans will consider that a relief. Maybe it’s smart of Disney and director Jon Favreau to leave well enough alone and simply try to recreate the original’s magic with contemporary technology and actors. Incredibly gorgeous visuals, a star-studded new cast, a punched-up comedic script, and a new Beyoncé song will no doubt be enough to get plenty of fans–of all ages–into the theater to see this movie. But in the end, Disney is just repeating history, and that makes the new Lion King simply good, not great.