I don’t know if there has been a major release that has made me so conflicted. Unlike most of the world, I’m not a big fan of the original Lion King (1994). That’s not to say I think it’s a bad movie – but I saw it, and I was good. I don’t hold it high on my personal list of Disney (or animated films) in general. Yet, I’m a huge fan of many members of the voice cast – especially Donal Glover – and I’m generally a supporter of Jon Favreau’s work. Thus, a few points in The Lion King’s (2019) favor. However, I’ve not been a fan of most of the live-action remakes that Disney keeps producing, forcing me to shove this movie into the gorge.
The Lion King didn’t win me over despite its stellar cast.
Baby Simba (JD McCrary) is presented to the animals of the Pride Lands in the joyous celebration by most of the animals – except by his absent uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Scar lives in squalor and feels as though he deserves to sit on the throne as king – but instead, his brother Mufasa (James Earl Jones) rules. Scar enacts a plan to rid of Simba and rip the throne from his brother by teaming up with the feared hyenas, but Simba manages to escape. Scar claims the throne while Simba takes a literal and metaphorical journey to discover the king he needs to become.
Well, the elephant in the room is an opinion that has been discussed in every review I’ve seen: while the animals in this film look unbelievably realistic, it does have a negative impact on the film. The majority of the talking in the film felt disconnected because of the realistic animal faces. Sure, their mouths move when to the words, but the lack of emoting reminded me of being a kid watching reruns of Mr. Ed. Almost every character’s voice felt disconnected, and it kept me at a distance from the movie. I especially felt this with McCrary’s performance as Young Simba. Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogan) were the only characters who were ever able to pull me into the movie – and, at times, it felt like they were their animal counterparts.
While I mostly blame the choice to keep the animals looking and acting like animals for making this movie feel unnerving, many of the voice performances felt uninspired. Beyonce, McCrary, and even Donald Glover’s performances felt more like they were reading their lines in a sound booth rather than acting and reacting off one another. Ejiofor does a great job with his lines as Scar, and I believed his performance probably most of all. Unfortunately, the disconnect I felt from the non-emoting faces – coupled with the flat line reads – didn’t really make for an overall enjoyable experience.
On a more positive note, the movie looks amazing. You can’t deny the quality of the CG animals, and one has to marvel at the advancement of the technology. However, we also must question the use of it in this film, as it just doesn’t hold the charm of the original animated style. One can look at Favreau’s other Disney animated remake, The Jungle Book (2016), to see similar problems. While I only saw the film once, I seem to remember a little more human emotions coming out of the animals in that film, yet it still didn’t compare to the charm that Baloo and King Louie had in the original animated feature. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: Disney is too preoccupied with whether or not they could make photorealistic animals talk, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
In my opinion, they shouldn’t have. The Lion King isn’t bad, and if you love the animated film you’ll probably find joy in this version. However, I never felt fully connected with anything happening in this film, except for a few brief moments with Timon and Pumba. I do wish I’d gone into it without the resounding idea of how lifeless this movie felt to so many other critics (many of them my friends), as I couldn’t shake that idea while watching it. It may have distorted my viewing, but I don’t really think that’s the case. Instead, I feel that my peers’ experiences and my own experience are accurate. The Lion King earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.