Among Disney’s many animation milestones throughout the 1990’s, few have resonated with quite as much cultural impact and continued celebration as 1994’s The Lion King. Loosely inspired by the biblical tale of Moses, as well as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King was a lavish, original, groundbreaking production for Disney, building upon the former triumphs of classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to cement Disney as the kings of the animated movie medium! The Lion King in turn went on to inspire a big franchise for Disney, including straight-to-video sequels, spin-off cartoons, video game adaptations, and even a Broadway stage musical. Thus, it was inevitable that Disney’s beloved 1990’s crown jewel would eventually become the latest cog in Disney’s live-action remake machine.
Building off of the success of fellow animal-themed production, The Jungle Book from 2016, right down to re-enlisting The Jungle Book director, Jon Favreau once again, The Lion King naturally aims to provide another live-action remake of an animated Disney classic for the modern era. Except that isn’t even fully true in this case. Instead, The Lion King is purely realized through CGI in its 2019 revamp, albeit impressive photo-realistic CGI that brings the movie’s animals and environments to vivid, awe-inspiring life, almost recapturing that same beautiful magic from the 1994 original in terms of pure visual splendour!… Almost.
For all of the technically impressive feats that the 2019 remake of The Lion King manages to achieve, it still can’t manage to escape the hard truth that it’s ultimately a pointless remake, one that contributes nothing new or interesting in contrast to the 1994 original. It’s pretty to look at for sure, and the music and audio design still sound fantastic, but the 2019 remake of The Lion King yet again fails to break out of the shadow of its noticeably superior 1990’s predecessor. In fact, 2019’s The Lion King mostly settles for being a shot-for-shot remake of its 1994 inspiration, with a few names and some dialogue changed, as well as a few new jokes, but all of the visual templates and story turns nonetheless remaining completely identical to the original movie. It’s still an impressive technical showcase, particularly for Disney fans who already loved the original The Lion King, but the greatest strength of this remake is also its greatest weakness; It’s sustained primarily on nostalgia for a movie that already didn’t need to be improved upon.
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the personalities of The Lion King by this point, considering how much of a staple the 1994 original is in modern culture. The remake doesn’t add any new faces either, unless you count some of the redesigns for the villainous hyenas, with the animated original’s Banzai and Ed now being replaced by two more menacing, yet still vaguely comical male hyena henchmen to leader, Shenzi, those being Keegan-Michael Key’s Kamari, and Eric Andre’s Azizi. Between Key and Andre doing voicework, you can imagine that Kamari and Azizi still take a little bit after their animated inspirations, making one wonder why this remake bothered to update two less-than-crucial villain characters from the original movie, at least beyond giving Ed’s replacement character actual dialogue this time. This seems like one of several changes from director, Jon Favreau’s original remake pitch, with Favreau intending to make the hyenas more scary and dangerous, something that Disney appears to have ultimately softened during production.
Regardless, The Lion King’s character arcs remain completely unchanged from the animated original. The story remains about young lion prince, Simba, voiced by JD McCrary in child form and Donald Glover in adult form, who wants to grow up and be king of Pride Rock, yet still struggles with the shadow of his highly celebrated father, the current king, Mufasa, voiced once again by James Earl Jones, the only returning actor from the 1994 original. All the while, Mufasa’s scheming brother, Scar, voiced in the remake by Chiwetel Ejiofor, wants to seize power for himself, and is willing to exploit Simba’s naivete and innocence in order to make that happen. From there, the movie remains a tale of responsibility, destiny and community values, and how much fun you can apparently have while hanging out with a warthog and a meerkat.
It all still works well, and thanks to universally impressive voiceover performances, those special emotional moments are still ruthlessly skilled at tugging on your heartstrings in this remake. If you’re expecting anything at all new or interesting with the established personalities of the original however, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re entering this remake being fully aware that nothing has changed with the characters that you likely already love, that’s well and good, but this also creates an enormous missed opportunity to actually bring The Lion King into 2019, beyond updating some of the pop culture references. Even with the character writing still working as well as it ever did, it’s tough to justify why one would revisit this remake over the original movie, which was more novel, and utilized its cartoon-ish sensibilities to make the character personalities pop even more. Even with this past May’s remake of Aladdin still sticking pretty closely to its source material overall, that remake at least tried to add in a few new flourishes to the personalities and storytelling. In the case of The Lion King however, you’re getting a photo-realistic recapturing of more or less the exact same personalities from 1994, which is fine, but in that case, why bother remaking them in the first place, beyond an easy box office gross?
Once again, if you’re expecting any curveballs within the plotting of 2019’s The Lion King remake, you’re going to be disappointed. Despite some altered dialogue, and a few new jokes here and there, the story progression is pretty much a shot-for-shot re-telling of the 1994 original, with no actual noteworthy story additions to speak of. Every story turn is captured completely as-is from the original movie, with these moments still presenting a great story, albeit one that was already perfected in cartoon form all the way back in 1994. Thus, there’s really nothing that one can say about the remake’s storyline. Nostalgic Disney enthusiasts will still fall in love with the same uplifting and emotional story flourishes in their new photo-realistic style, but that just makes the photo-realism contribute little more to the story than gimmickry. It may be easy to love these moments again, but the remake lacks that essential novelty that made them shine as much as they did in the original, leaving the remake to feel like an imitation, rather than a true update.
Jon Favreau has already done outstanding work in helming Disney’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, so it’s smart on the part of the House of Mouse to try and re-enlist him for another animal-themed remake. Favreau does a commendable job of recapturing many of the most majestic and memorable moments from the 1994 original as well, even if it definitely seems like he’s approaching this remake with significantly less enthusiasm than he did in the case of The Jungle Book. For all of Favreau’s efforts to try and add a bit more of a pseudo-realistic edge to this remake, it nonetheless feels like Disney intervened in the production quite frequently, desperate to make sure that it stayed faithful to the original. The problem however is that in so doing, Disney also seemed to create a different problem, namely that 2019’s The Lion King now has pretty much nothing separating it from its animated predecessor, outside of the visual revamp and a few modernized tweaks to the dialogue and jokes.
Nonetheless, Favreau manages to helm an impressive and sometimes downright beautiful technical showcase, even if it definitely seems like he checked out at some point during the realization of the narrative. The Lion King thus ends up feeling like work-for-hire for Favreau, which is unsurprising, considering that it very clearly appears to be a result of design-by-committee, functioning more as a Disney product, rather than a proud and strong Disney movie in its own right. For adults who already grew up loving the original 1994 version of The Lion King, or children possibly discovering this story for the first time, that works well enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that the animated original has still held up perfectly, and ultimately isn’t that difficult to get ahold of for consumption on home video. Heck, the original animated version of The Lion King was even re-released in theatres less than a decade ago, complete with its own all-new 3D presentation, and even that sometimes felt more impressive than this remake does, at least outside of the remake’s new photo-realistic window dressing.
Much like this Summer’s earlier live-action remake of Aladdin, the 2019 remake of The Lion King brings back the original movie’s composer to once again oversee the soundtrack, in this case, Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s soundtrack remains just as fantastic in the remake as it did in the original as well, working overtime to hit all of the emotional beats of every dramatic turn throughout the story pretty much flawlessly. Naturally, Disney fans will especially love how well Zimmer’s The Lion King score has held up in its 2019 rendition, with barely any changes ultimately being required to bring the musical suite into the modern era! This of course includes the lyrical numbers originally written by Elton John and Tim Rice as well, though strangely, “Be Prepared” is a bit of a casualty, being considerably downscaled in contrast to the other main musical sequences in the case of this remake. That’s pretty disappointing for one of the best villain songs in Disney history, to say the least!
Regardless, the live-action sound mixing’s clarity is upgraded a bit in contrast to some of the audio design from the 1994 original, but it still feels like it mostly exists in the realm of animation. In fact, some of the sound work is actually less intense in the remake than it was in the original, even in premium formats like IMAX, which is a bit strange for a remake that’s aiming to be photo-realistic, and better capture the sheer ferocity of untamed African animals. This is most noticeable during the pivotal stampede sequence, which somehow doesn’t feel quite as harrowing as it did in the animated original, though this could also be 1990’s nostalgia playing tricks on the ears. Even so, the audio flourishes in the animated original were sometimes a little more impressive, but the audio engineering in the remake is still pretty sharp overall, even if it strangely feels more artificial in pseudo-live-action than it did in a cartoon format.
Seeing as it doesn’t see fit to contribute anything new at all to the story or character arcs, 2019’s remake of The Lion King is predictably banking heavily on its visuals, and for the most part, they are indeed very impressive. As much as the movie has the persistent aftertaste of feeling like a tech demo rather than a properly realized update to the 1994 original, It’s impossible to deny the sheer visual spectacle behind the African Savannah that The Lion King recreates with amazingly realistic attention to detail… Until the animals speak, that is. The only blemish on the otherwise stellar CGI work throughout The Lion King is that the animal movements and choreography feel limited and unconvincing, which definitely hurts the musical numbers, all of which popped with significantly more style and charm in the animated original. Still, the animal designs themselves are fantastic, and the African set pieces surrounding them look so real that they deftly dance upon the line of the uncanny valley, liable to convince children at the very least that what they’re looking at is somehow right in front of them, in the moment.
Speaking of being right in front of the audience, I was fortunate to catch a showing of The Lion King in full IMAX 3D, and fortunately, these upgrades are well worth the added cost in this case! The 3D presentation is quite sharp in The Lion King, creating a palpable sense of added immersion that even more potently pulls audiences into the simulated African wilds that this remake realizes so exceptionally. The movie still looks stunning when viewed flat in 2D, but if you have a taste for 3D, the 3D upgrade is well worth it here, especially in IMAX theatres, where it’s even more pronounced and immersive. The rest of the IMAX presentation is similarly impressive, with the increased screen size doing quite a bit to further enhance the sheer scale of the production, alongside the upgraded speakers that make the impressive sound design feel all the more gripping. If you have the means, I recommend pushing the visuals as far as you can take them between both 3D and IMAX, but regardless of your format of choice, The Lion King stands alongside 2016’s remake of The Jungle Book as the other most technically impressive ‘live-action’ remake that Disney has managed to deliver thus far!
For all of its technical sheen and sharp performances, this year’s remake of The Lion King nonetheless feels disappointingly unmemorable and hollow when it comes to its storytelling. Its highlight moments still engage the emotions, but this version of The Lion King also undeniably feels like the diet version of the story, lacking the sugary zing and lasting positive taste of the 1994 original. It’s sort of the same product, but definitely not entirely the same, and the substitutions to the original’s sublime ingredient list only serve to dilute the same impact that the original’s magic had. No matter how attractive the packaging, you just can’t beat that original flavour.
Hence why the best thing about this remake of The Lion King is also the worst thing. In terms of warm, fuzzy nostalgia and sheer technical panache, The Lion King impresses, but that’s also the only way that it impresses when stacked up against its predecessor. Beyond that, the remake contributes nothing new or noteworthy, and likely won’t stand the test of time as well as its animated predecessor did. It’s fair enough as a Summer movie distraction for Disney fans, and certainly for Disney’s financial bottom line, but The Lion King’s 2019 remake also feels like the least necessary of this year’s trio of live-action Disney remakes. It’s just as impressive to look at and listen to as any of the others, but it certainly can’t replace the incredible legacy of an outstanding movie that didn’t truly require a remake in the first place.
- Solid voiceover performances throughout
- Soundtrack remains impressive to listen to
- Highly impressive photo-realistic visuals, especially in 3D
- Story and character arcs are completely unchanged from the original
- Animal lip movements and choreography don't work well
- Direction sometimes feels too listless