REVIEW (1 of 2): THE LION KING – The Mighty King Disney Has Truly Fallen

The following is the first of two reviews from GRM contributors on the remake of THE LION KING. Click above on the main page to also read Dustin Burrsma’s take on this new Disney franchise picture.

It’s a pretty pathetic thing to think that the only reason that a new version of THE LION KING movie exists in 2019 is purely business related instead of an artistic one. Naturally, you are in a business to make money, of course, but you should also be able to stand by your product as something to be proud of. As someone who has been truly amazed by what people shell out ticket money for these days, this just-released remake of THE LION KING was met with a lot of trepidation over the last few months and for very good reasons.

Earlier this decade, there was a digital 3D restoration of THE LION KING which came back to theatres for a limited run, and now that the movie is 25 years old, a full on restoration of the film back into theatres would have been such a good idea, would have made money and brought a new generation into this animated gem in an even more financial success than the last release. I for one would have loved to see it again on the big screen just in a good old 2D re-release or even in an enhanced format like IMAX or Dolby Cinema.  

Instead, after a string of successful reboot/remakes from Disney in the past few years (which came to a peak with the massive success of the 2016 remake THE JUNGLE BOOK), it was discovered that an even stronger significant boost in revenue would happen if they scrapped the idea of restoring the original movie and instead do a complete re-do by way of a live-action/computer animated version, which audiences seem to be wanting this more…for some reason. But more on that later. 

Where this 2019 film, directed by Jon Favreau and a team of animators that plagues 10+ minutes of end credit time, makes a massive and unforgivable mistake is the decision to pretty much just copy the original to current visual effects standards. The result comes across as dull, lifeless and visually ugly right from the get-go, and not a single moment goes by where you are ever engaged in the new visual form of storytelling and instead wish you were sitting at home watching a better version of this movie which is already available on Home Video. 

Where the original 1994 movie absolutely triumphed in telling a fable in a beautiful fashion, this 2019 edition of THE LION KING feels more in tune with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO and completely lacking any reason to actually exist in the first place. This is not only a live-action retelling of the original animated film but also EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE ORIGINAL MOVIE with similar framing and edits from the first film as well. I feel like this has been happening a lot lately, even with the recent ALADDIN remake, but at least that one DID try to take some of the material in a new direction, with a different actor playing the genie and a few different twists. 

(That I am even defending a pretty weak, Guy Ritchie directed ALADDIN over this new Disney spawn is pretty sad in itself.)

With this LION KING remake wants to do is to come across as a live-action remake but, ironically, in a computer animated version that looks more fake than the vibrant water-colours of a hand-drawn animated movie from a few decades ago. The exact same, HAMLET-inspired story has not changed whatsoever; we’re asked to believe the story of young Simba who is born into his “royal” family and is thwarted in his destiny by his uncle Scar, is banished to another colony where he befriends two castaways who take Simba as one of their own….you know what, I give up, as trying to explain this storyline once again is absolutely pointless. If you know anything about movies and are over the age of 12, you have probably seen the first LION KING already. You know what it’s about. 

What is so amazingly sad here is that you could even make a good new movie with using some elements of the original movie. The key person to blame here is Jon Favreau, which is shocking as he has not only made waves as an actor and filmmaker ever since he hit the scene with SWINGERS in 1996, he did such a terrific job a few years ago with a remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK. It had been several decades since there was an adaption of the animated musical and still a few decades in-between a slightly rough (but entertaining) remake starring Jason Scott Lee, and they did an admirable job of trying something new and setting all of the action against a young boy who was our throughline to the material. 

Even worse is that I really couldn’t tell many of the characters apart! In the animated version I could clearly tell the difference between young Simba and Nala, for example, where the two characters had a slight colour balance to them to set them apart. Here, they look completely identical and we can only distinguish them by voice. In a later scene, we see Scar and an older Simba in a pivotal fight sequence and it looks like a bad Mirror Match in a video game where you play against yourself, and you can tell which is which when one of the characters meet their doom and you have to remember what happened in the first movie to see which character it is.

I even want to use a YouTube clip in this review, as I popped across the original’s “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” after screening the new movie and watched it again and just marvelled. Watch this clip carefully. 

Watch the flow, the framing, the overall design of the sequence and how the animation just pops off the screen with boundless, vibrant energy. It is easy to tell there was a lot of drive by the animators, the musicians, the voice actors involved and the absolute love and joy in every colourful frame and the eagerness to please. In this 2019 remake, NONE of that comes across and just has the characters walking across a plain field looking at each other in cold, dead-eye contact. 

I really am aware, many paragraphs later, that all I am doing is comparing this new movie to the original, but since this new movie isn’t even trying to do anything different and completely failing to engage me on any sort of entertainment level, I’m completely stuck on how else to evaluate it. I sat stone-faced for a painfully overlong 115 minutes (much longer than the 88 minute original, although a good portion of the new version’s 115 minute time are animator credits), feeling like nothing was happening that I had not seen before. 

I also didn’t even feel that the movie even LOOKED good; aside from the tight closeups and awkward framing, there’s just an air of emptiness throughout in its dreary, bleak frames lacking color and character, where I didn’t feel it was either real or animated. It just sat somewhere in between in a complete disengagement. All of these animators went through all of this effort to create images that you simply can’t engage with, and there was never a moment where I felt like any of this was natural and was completely aware that I was watching visual effects. This is a far cry from something like the PADDINGTON movies where we forget that the main character is a full visual effect and is interesting and captivating enough that we forget it mere seconds after it starts. Even the 2012 movie TED had a more convincing visual effect as a talking stoner bear, and even more so because it acted against Mark Wahlberg. 

Casting all of this aside, I tried to put myself in the mindset of someone who has NOT seen the original movie, and even tried to think like a kid. Will kids like this? Will families who are unfamiliar with the 1994 movie come into this with fresh eyes? At the screening I attended, I sensed a lot of kids either became uninterested and kept leaving the theater with their parents to use the bathroom at several points, and kept looking away uninterested. One kid decided to run laps around the bottom half of the stadium-seating theater, looking anywhere but up at the screen. 

With movie tickets at such a premium these days, what about just tracking down a Blu Ray or digital copy of THE LION KING and putting it on your home screen? If you are anywhere near a hot summer night, how about a screening in your backyard, projected onto a big screen with the soundtrack turned up with some barbecue in the background? If you have seen it already, why not just buy a copy of the soundtrack and put it on your music player of choice? All of these ideas, or ANYTHING other than plunking down movie for this garbage! I am sure there are still a few theatres playing TOY STORY 4 right now which is a rare sequel that is nearly as good as the first movie, and that was also a product of the 1990s. 

As a huge fan of the Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff original, I would be very jealous of someone being able to see that for the first time with its dazzling watercolours and vivid animated journey come to life in one’s imagination. It’s a piece of work that truly values its audience and wants to entertain, get you involved and fall in love with the goings-on of the world, whereas this bad business decision of NOW just thinks you’re stupid. If you are seeing this new movie as your first journey into this story instead of tracking down a much superior gem, I truly feel sorry for you. 

And while I also mentioned the audience earlier, an even stranger thing took place; when certain lines or songs came up, audience members either quoted or sung along with the lyrics. They were also leaving the movie in large groups for long periods of time to either visit the concession or go to the bathroom, missing major parts of the movie, but hey, that’s okay as they have already seen this movie already! The major problem with this is that I could tell they bought their tickets and already decided they were going to enjoy this as an easy, simplistic type of movie that reminds them of another nostalgic moment of their past and not challenge them in any way. I know that the average movie-goer mindset IS different than someone like me, but I like to think that audiences do want to spend money on something that they will enjoy and something that will engage them a BIT more than a carbon copy of what they have already seen before. 

To the filmmakers responsible for making this, why not take it in a new direction? Why try something original for once? There can be the original songs, even a new visual style or something to honor the original material while also branching out into a new reason to exist.  What saddens me about this, even more, is that it will not only make a boatload of money and continue the disturbing trend of all of these live-action reboots, but that there are many better, more original movies fighting for attention in theatres right now that audiences are completely ignoring and purchasing tickets for this garbage instead. 

This remake of THE LION KING is a complete slap in the face to a significantly better and original movie, and shame on Disney and all of the filmmakers for creating this ugly and miserable new motion picture that has no reason to exist other than to make a lot of money for a film company that I once had a lot of respect for. Even if there were no other options I would even recommend, as a movie buff, to just go outside for a walk or maybe a swim in some water. Either way, you’re better than this, people.

Rating: ZERO out of ****

THE LION KING is now in theatres. Go see something else. 

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