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The Lion King Review

Nearly every aesthetic decision that went into this version of the The Lion King detracts from the artistry and the heart that helped its predecessor surpass immortality.


A scalding sun sets off Jon Favreau’s The Lion King. It rises above an African savanna so realistic that a narration from David Attenborough wouldn’t feel entirely out of left field. But this isn’t a nature documentary. It’s cutting-edge animation, where photorealism is not only a priority, but also an irredeemable placeholder for charisma and emotion. Yes, the opening minutes of The Lion King are breathtaking, as the faithful populations of the Pride Lands flock together in a colorful celebration of their newborn prince. But they also signify a couple of patterns that remain frustratingly stagnant throughout this sloppy-seconds production.

First of all, it’s the same thing. But then again, it’s not.

The Elton John-Tim Rice song “Circle of Life,” which introduced the beloved 1994 film, also reigns in this surefire blockbuster. It’s unlikely that there’ll ever be a better-suited opening number. Starting out with the instantly recognizable chant from South African vocalist Lebo M, a foreign voice then leaps in for the verses. Don’t get me wrong. Lindiwe Mkhize sounds superb. But she’s different. And that’s the problem.

In its nature, the format of this movie – a nearly shot-by-shot retelling, not reimagining – makes the viewing distracting and evermore disappointing. Any remake’s going to conjure up inevitable comparisons to its ancestor, but what Favreau seems to have forgotten since his time on 2016’s The Jungle Book is the need for distinction. Much like young Simba (JD McCrary) stepping into the enormous footprint of his father Mufasa (a wise James Earl Jones, the only actor reprising his role from 25 years ago), the Iron Man director and his team stare devotedly up towards their prized predecessor but can’t seem to figure out what to do next.

Secondly, the opening’s majesty can be very much attributed, at least in this version, to the fact that none of the animals are speaking. The technical prowess this film achieves in realizing its characters is remarkable, as the tiny spectacles of nature we’re invited to observe – such as when a dung beetle rolls around its cargo and you realize poop has never looked better on the big screen – plop down even more Mickey Mouse flags across the moon of digital animation. And it isn’t until they start to communicate, until they break the fabric of the rules attached to their appearances, that the spell is broken. And broken badly.

Just as it had 25 years ago, the plot revolves around the misgivings of the royal lion family. It’s then set ablaze once Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), with the help of some rather frightening hyenas, murders him, puts the blame on Simba, and in doing so, clears himself a direct line to the throne. The Shakespearean lineage’s still clearly felt, but at the same time, the photorealistic approach works against the drama, which in turn, becomes flat. And not even the voice talents of Donald Glover and Beyoncé can push through the numbed-faces of their ferocious and furry characters.

It appears there’s a tradeoff in making these animals look as they would on Animal Planet. The exact amount of what’s lost from hand-drawn animation is up for debate, but simple, intangible qualities such as expression and energy quickly add up. I imagine kids won’t know how to react when the sound of voices, laughs, and cries aren’t supported by the, albeit, beautiful picture in front of them.

With that said, redemption is somewhat earned by Seth Rogen’s farting warthog and Billy Eichner’s companioning meercat. As Pumbaa and Timon, the duo radiates and steals the show by actually doing their own thing. Amazingly, in a such a costly production, Eichner and Rogen seem to be the only ones who understand what this film needs. Unfortunately for them, the rest of The Lion King isn’t able to move past the qualifications of a digitally upgraded, rehashed imitation. It is, without a doubt, Disney’s biggest missed opportunity in the modern age.


Nearly every aesthetic decision that went into this version of the The Lion King detracts from the artistry and the heart that helped its predecessor surpass immortality.

The Lion King Review

About the author

Luke Parker