The circle of life works very differently in the jungles of Hollywood than it does in the plains of Africa. Movie studios have a lot in common with the proverbial snake that eats its own tail. This time, the tail is made of intellectual property. It’s inevitable that everything you loved growing up will be brought back in another form.
Disney has made recycling your childhood into big business. The Lion King is Disney’s third live-action remake to be released in 2019 following Aladdin and Dumbo with the former two scoring over a billion worldwide at the box office. Only the beloved flying elephant failed to soar to similar heights.
If you remember the original Lion King, the remake holds no real surprises. James Earl Jones is the lone original cast member to return as the regal Mufasa, who rules over the Pride Lands. The film opens with the iconic presentation of Mufasa’s newborn son, Simba (JD McCrary, Donald Glover), who will be next in line to assume the throne as King. Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who forges an alliance with the hyenas to stage a coup.
Is it truly spoilers to say that Mufasa dies and Simba is chased far from home where he grows into young adulthood under the care of a meerkat and warthog named Timon and Pumba (Billy Eichner & Seth Rogen).
The Lion King certainly feels like a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 animated classic. The opening sequence at Pride Rock is faithfully recreated through state-of-the-art CGI under the auspices of director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Much of the film could be mistaken for a Disney nature documentary, an amazing achievement considering no actual animals were used during production. The remake has an additional thirty minutes of runtime compared to the original as screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Rush Hour 2, Tower Heist) beefed up the relatively small roles of Nala (Beyonce) and Simba’s mother Serabi (Alfre Woodward). Also added is a new song, “Spirit,” performed and co-written by Beyonce. The soundtrack features many familiar tunes such as “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Unfortunately, not all the musical numbers of the 2019 version match up to its predecessor. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” was the most colorful and energetic song of the original Lion King with the choreography of a Busby Berkeley classic. The remake’s slavish devotion to photorealism saps so much of the livelihood from the original sequence. Far more pronounced is the difference between the interpretations of Scar’s big number “Be Prepared.” The original saw hyenas goosestepping out of a Leni Riefenstahl fever dream while highlighted by ominous green light and gas. The remake does away with the fascist imagery and even the singing as Ejiofor performs the tune as a spoken word speech. That’s a shame since Ejiofor proved he could carry a tune in Kinky Boots.
This leads us to the most problematic issue of the remake, the lack of sheer raw emotion. The CGI creatures of Favreau’s film just can’t emote the same way as the animals created through old-fashioned, hand drawn animation. The characters are limited to one or two facial expressions and the moving mouths are only just slightly more convincing than the talking pups of the Air Buddies franchise. It’s up to the voice actors to pick up the slack and everyone equates themselves admirably. No offense to Matthew Broderick, but Donald Glover is an upgrade as Simba. I could never reconcile how Ferris Bueller could be the son of James Earl Jones. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are inspired casting choices as the boisterous Timon and Pumba. Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key bring some comic relief as two of the lead hyenas, but Florence Kasumba’s Shenzi is far more menacing than the Whoopi Goldberg version.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Whatever your feelings are about the actual movie, the presentation is impeccable. Disney has given us a reference quality disc with absolute clarity and incredible details from the desert landscapes to the beautiful African skies. There’s rich texture to be found even in the fuzz of the lion cubs.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. While the video is practically picture perfect, there’s room for improvement with the sound. I found myself having to turn the volume way up to get the full effect. Still, the audio presentation is nice with all the dialogue and music coming in crisp and clear, along with a nice rumble during the stampede sequence.
The Blu-ray includes a brief intro by Jon Favreau as well as a director’s commentary track in which he delves into how they reinterpreted the story of Lion King and the cutting edge digital effects.
You’ll also have the option of watching the film with lyrics appearing karaoke-style during the musical numbers or skipping to specific songs.
The Journey to The Lion King is a 3-part making-of documentary consisting of: The Music (13:36), which not only looks at the famous songs, but also the score by Hans Zimmer; The Magic (21:01) delves further into the special effects; and The Timeless Tale (18:47) is all about the legacy of the original film and the casting process of the remake.
More to Be Scene lets you breakdown the musical numbers for “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and “Hakuna Matata” with animatics, storyboards, and video clips from the actors recording sessions.
Protect the Pride (3:02) is a PSA about preserving the endangered lion population of Africa.
Rounding out the extras are two music videos for the songs “Spirit” and “Never Too Late” by Elton John.
FILM VALUE: 6
The Lion King is a solid cover song. It didn’t need to exist, doesn’t capture the magic of the original, but there’s something comforting about its familiarity. While Favreau has crafted a technical marvel, it’s noticeably missing the soul that Disney created twenty-five years ago with a fraction of the budget.