Movie Review: ‘The Lion King’ Delivers A Nostalgic Visual Stunner, But Little More

The live-action remake of the Disney classic stays a little too close to the original

Photos: Walt Disney Pictures

When Disney announced their plan to reboot a slew of its animated classics into live-action blockbusters, The Lion King felt like an odd choice. Sure, the 1994 movie was one of the most iconic and popular hits that defined the studio’s Renaissance. But what is Disney’s purpose for remaking it in photorealistic CGI? Less than two months ago, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin added meaningfully to the original by having a more diverse cast and more empowered Jasmine, showing us the whole live-action project has promise. Disney is looking back at their old classics from a contemporary lens and giving marginalised characters and cultures more depth.

That seemed like the way that the new Lion King was heading, too. Directed by Jon Favreau, who also helmed the 2016 live-action reboot of The Jungle Book, The Lion King first intrigued us by announcing its voice cast, a star-studded and multi-talented group of actors that is significantly more diverse than the almost all-white cast for the 1994 original. However, halfway through the movie, we’re realising that the casting may be the most that the remake adds to the cultural conversation, and it is essentially a technological showcase that plays with our craving for nostalgia.

From the stirring Zulu opening chant from ‘The Circle of Life,’ the new Lion King for its most part performs a nearly scene-by-scene, at times even shot-by-shot remake of the animated original. We’re pretty sure the entire ‘Circle of Life’ was re-created. The script also follows the original very faithfully, to the point that we could predict immediately what the next line and action was going to be.

We revisit the same coming-of-age plot in which Simba, after a tragic accident, discovers what it truly means to be king of Pride Rock. We definitely expected and looked forward to several iconic moments and dialogue being re-created, and the main plot to remain largely the same, but not to the extent of rehashing the 1994 movie.

It’s especially disappointing because there were a few points in the movie where Disney attempted to diverge or expand on the story, such as delving deeper into Nala’s individual strengths, Simba’s trauma, and the long-standing power struggle between the noble lions and the outcast hyenas. But in the end, these potential expansions did not get developed.

Ultimately, Disney plays it very safe with their Lion King remake and puts in more effort to update the technical elements more than the themes of the original. The movie takes visual effects to the next level, making the animals and the natural environment so hyper-realistic, we would probably have believed the production team if they said they really shot everything on location with real animals in an African savannah. Every wisp of Simba’s mane and curve of a leaping antelope’s back is brought to life in sharp, astonishingly gorgeous detail. The visual effects team captures the tranquil spirit of the savannah and the “circle of life” message. Many of the speech-less sequences felt like a nature documentary and we half-expected to hear David Attenborough’s voice pop up and start narrating.

The hyper-realism also has some drawbacks, though. It was difficult for us to reconcile that there are talking and even singing animals on screen when they look so life-like. The facial expressiveness of the CGI animals could not carry the same emotional weight that animation could. The new Lion King still packs an emotional punch, but with less heart compared to the 1994 original. And what capacity it had to move us deeply should be credited to Hans Zimmer’s score, beautiful as ever, more than anything else.

Speaking of the music, we must say we enjoyed what Donald Glover and Beyonce brought to the remake as adult Simba and Nala. Their voices soared truly in perfect harmony during “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” Chiwetel Ejiofor is a convincingly formidable yet vulnerable Scar, while Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen provide great comic relief with some new and welcomed gags as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively.

It’s hard not to compare the new Lion King with the animated original, especially when it invites so much comparison. The movie gives us a visual spectacle and fresh new voices, but after the wow effect wears off, what we are left with is a rather empty nostalgia fest.