There is a lot of fairy tale logic in the original, animated The Lion King (1994). Some of it I have a problem with, some of it I accept, but all of it is painted over with gorgeous animation. But that storytelling style simply doesn’t gel with the hyper-realistic visuals of director Jon Favreau’s remake. Unlike certain other recent Disney remakes of animated classics, The Lion King (2019) suffers for not adapting its storytelling to the new presentational format.
When the remake was conceived, the intention was for the 100% computer-generated environment to look like a nature documentary (a genre Disney often works in under the Disney Nature banner), and that goal has been fully realized. The technological achievement of the film is unimpeachable, but the storytelling belongs to another movie. This disconnect is, for instance, clearly illustrated in the characterization of the main villain, Scar.
In 1994, Jeremy Irons bathed in the river of ham in the role of Scar, throne-usurper and brother to King Mufasa. He chewed the scenery, sang a terrific song, and went on to other over-the-top villain roles in the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. In 2019, Chiwetel Ejiofor takes over the role, and where Irons would preen and purr like a pantomime baddie, Ejiofor goes for a hard-edged psychological approach to make Scar frightening and restrained. The villain song, “Be Prepared”, signals this change. It’s my favorite song by far in the original, but the only one fast-forwarded through here; while not doing me any favors, this is a legitimate choice. The song appears in a truncated, militaristic rendition – exit the diva, enter the general.
But even as they create this more grounded Scar, the filmmakers make the critical mistake of showing him to be, frankly, as much of an idiot as the original, without the excuse of histrionic characterization. We are introduced to Scar as a lion of manipulative intellect; Scar says that between him and his brother Mufasa, he got the lion’s share of brains. But he’s delusional enough to think that his hyenas ravaging the Pride Lands make him a greater King than his brother. He throws the hyenas under the proverbial bus and gets eaten for it. And worst of all, he needlessly confesses to killing Mufasa when Simba is so deeply (and illogically) convinced of his own “guilt” of that crime. These are the moments that have always kept Scar from being a great villain, but at least in 1994, they could be the excesses of a prima donna. In 2019, they do not fit this more serious characterization of Scar.
The same goes for Simba’s deeply internalized guilt for the death of his father; every step along that character arc is the broad stroke of a bedtime story. The film is a half-measure, changing some presentational aspects but hewing to cartoon-appropriate storytelling in a photo-realistic context. To be fair, the case of Timon and Pumbaa is one where the filmmakers were backed into a corner, had to adapt their dynamic, and succeeded in creating endearing chemistry between new performers Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Their subtle breaking of the fourth wall is amusing, especially in one moment that led me to an audible WTF (with a smile on my face) in the theater. It’s no fluke that the strongest song in the 2019 Lion King is their new inclusion “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which is buoyed by a bouncy energy simply not there in the other musical covers, and which ends in an inspired punch line.
As potentially gross as it is to say that two of the only white actors in a triumphantly diverse cast play the standout roles, their characters have the energy of successful new inspiration, as does their song. As for musical half-measures, why include leading single “Spirit” by Nala actor Beyoncé in the film for about 30 seconds as a voice of God song and not play it during the end credits, instead of writing a new song for Nala in the movie for a potential showstopper?
It also feels like Jon Favreau already basically made this movie with The Jungle Book (2016), using a lot of Lion King iconography in a more interesting way. A scenery-and-animal chewing villain with a facial scar (Shere Khan, Scar), who takes over the heroes’ domain (the wolves’ territory, the Pride Lands), dies after falling into fire. A stampede sequence threatens the lead character. A comic relief mentor (Baloo, Timon) advises the young hero to relax, not worry about the villain, and live on the bare necessities.
When Disney remade Beauty and the Beast in live-action, care was taken to explain anew fairy tale logic. No one in the village concerns themselves with the royal goings-on at the castle because their memories were wiped. The terms of Belle’s imprisonment were changed. Care was taken to make the romance more believable. Care was taken to give characters like Maurice and LeFou a personality transplant like Scar, but unlike Scar, one that determined new character arcs for them. Some criticized the film for over-explaining things and overcomplicating 84 minutes of compact animation. But 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is true to its aesthetic; it changes the fairy tale because we’re looking at something more real. 2019’s The Lion King is what happens when you don’t adapt your storytelling to a new visual format.
So the photo-real Lion King, in very specific ways, makes other live-action remakes look better. It’s also my least favorite Disney remake-adjacent film since Alice through the Looking Glass. Not as heart wrenching as Christopher Robin, not as visually interesting as Dumbo, not as magical as Aladdin. This is not to say it is a bad film. Even with its occasional lifelessness and misguided reverence to a generation’s memory, it’s functionally entertaining. For me, it’s… fine, so very average. But deep-emotion-wise, I felt nothing in this movie until the very last scene. Disney’s live-action remake initiative is just part of their circle of life, but The Lion King feels like a missed opportunity.