We’re now in a place in cinematic culture where our love for any particular Disney live-action remake will in turn be arbitrarily determined based on specific feelings of the original. These films in general and the latest, The Lion King in particularly, will make you nostalgic. They’ll be laughter and likely some tears. And if you’re an adult looking back at the original version of The Lion King, you may even question why you thought for so long that ‘no worries’ was actually a good motto to adhere to through life.
Following Dumbo and Aladdin, it’s the third Disney film to be released this year that is a live action remake of an animated classic from the vault. And with that story from Agrabah alongside 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, we’ve now the third Disney adaption of a tale from the golden age of animated singalongs of the 90s.
Gone are dancing animals in this version of The Lion King, along with a full-length version of ‘Be Prepared,’ and some less inspired casting choices. Instead, we’ve a stunningly realized, at times eerie vision of wildlife that looks like they’re picked out of the finest of documentaries. And they can also sing and talk and murder. That this version is so lifelike, any gestures that lions and other animals can’t actually do, like grin or high-step or mug for the camera, are gone. It substitutes out the fanciful for the awe-inspiring, the lively for the authentic.
Indeed, much of this version is beat-for-beat of the original, including the stirring opening sequence. A future king is born in Simba, and all the animals of the pride lands gather round to pay homage. Except of course for Simba’s uncle Scar, played with more hatred and less sassy attitude than Jeremy Irons in the animated version. Surely, we all know the plot: a plan to kill the king and guilt Simba unfolds, and the young cub runs away from his problems and responsibilities to live a carefree life while an opportunistic Scars ruins a once promising land into decay.
So comes a question of purpose. This remake adds a new song by Beyoncé, who voices adult Nala, a lot of welcome jokes from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, the new Timon and Pumbaa. And of course those remarkable visuals. Like the other remakes, it offers a chance for a new generation to experience these films in a way that might be more familiar with. Those Disney originals are great – but mostly if you grew up with them. Our love for them is protected by a cloud of nostalgia that forgives any mistakes, including insensitivities towards race and sex that would be unforgiveable today. The old animation is beautiful because it’s a part of the evolution in so many people’s moviegoing life – but a new generation may not take as fondly. Our animated tastes have changed.
James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa, just as fatherly and endearing and stoic; but instead of a cast of predominantly white actors doing voice work, this story that is set in Africa features a mostly black cast. JD McCrary and Donald Glover are young and old Simba, respectively, while Lupita Nyong’o, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are the trio of menacing hyenas.
The issue with the movie is its difficulty in balancing tones and giving its talented characters enough to do. Plot drives the story, and not the characters, which means that one moment Simba is having a laugh eating grub, and the next he’s ready to return to fight for his land. While longer in length than the original, the key points hit quickly and then make way for the next. The limitations of the photorealistic animals may leave you wanting a big more grandiosity in the song numbers, too. Still, the pivotal scene at the gorge featuring Simba and his father is full of more chills and emotions than you may remember. It certainly will pierce the stoniest of hearts.
Significantly, there seems to be more a point of emphasis on the fact that the life Timon and Pumbaa heralds, one of ignoring your problems, forgetting the past, and forgoing all responsibilities is incredibly unhealthy for everyone. A few too many people may have taken the wrong message from the original.
Ultimately, this remake isn’t any less pointless or money-driven than just about every major film released today. There is an unhealthy backlash against films that remake those we loved as a child, as if new films can actually replace memories like something out of Total Recall (which was also remade). A lovely return to Pride Rock, The Lion King is a different vision of a familiar story that’s always worth revisiting.