This latest incarnation of The Lion King probably doesn’t need to exist. It’s not different enough to offer a refreshing experience on the familiar story. It also doesn’t offer the essential qualities that drew in audiences to the original film in the first place. Instead, The Lion King (2019) seems to exist as a “What If?” project instead of something truly compelling.
The story of The Lion King (2019) remains unchanged from the other various incarnations. Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) is the King of the Jungle, but his throne is constantly under threat from his brother Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Scar’s succession to the throne, however, is interrupted by the birth of Mufasa’s son, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary and Donald Glover). So, Scar manufactures the death of Mufasa and frames Simba for the crime, driving Simba out of his lands to survive in the wilds. Only after years have passed does Simba return to his home in an attempt to regain what is rightfully his.
I’ve seen the original The Lion King a total of one time, and that was decades ago. I missed the 3D update in 2011, so to revisit the film was a treat since I couldn’t recall the majority of the shots and dialog. However, the more I talked to people who had a more recent experience with the original version, the more I understood how similar the two films were. If I were a parent with young children, then I’d probably have been bored watching this adaptation which essentially matches the original film shot for shot, or so I’m told.
Still, the visuals are astounding, and I wasn’t sure how much of what I was seeing was computer generated and how much was reality mixed in. To my eye, outside of the animals’ mouths moving in sync to their voices, everything looked realistic. Kudos to the animators for capturing all of the animal mannerisms as well as the physics of the world. But is that compelling enough to convince audiences to experience this story again?
Perhaps the visual update could have been an adequate incentive if another essential aspect of the original film had remained intact – the human expressions on the animals’ faces. If we have learned anything from Pixar and the other animation studios, then it’s that audiences can sympathize with almost anything, including cars, as long as the characters can make human expressions. If the character doesn’t have a face, then it better have other human characteristics, like arms and legs, so that it can communicate human emotion with body language. Without those aspects, audiences are forced to intellectualize the emotions rather than feel them.
Without human facial expressions, there’s a very big disconnect that feels too wide of a divide for audiences to bridge. So, instead of feeling the fear in Simba as he clings to a branch or join in the concern Simba feels for his father as he struggles to climb the cliffside, we’re left to imagine these emotions. Simply put, it’s just not as good.
The voice acting in the original is also better. The actors in the original perform as if they’re on stage acting for the backrow. As a result, their characters are bigger, more pronounced, and archetypal. Here, outside of Billy Eichner, all of the characters feel muted. Disappointingly, Beyoncé doesn’t add to the film, and her flat performance is a distraction.
The animal kingdom is full of drama, making it a fantastic setting for cinema. There’s violence, self-sacrifice, birth, death, and everything in between to complete the circle of life. But there seems to be only two ways to appreciate that drama – either on animal terms or human terms. Unfortunately, The Lion King (2019) attempts to find a middle ground that doesn’t work. If you’ve seen the original version of this film, then let that be your only memory of this story.