Despite the familiarity of the story, 2019’s The Lion King proves its worth with breathtaking visuals. When tragedy strikes Pride Rock, Simba is forced to leave behind everything he knows. After maturing, the rightful king returns to his former home with the hopes of righting his wrongs and restoring power.
If that sounds familiar, it should, as The Lion King is Disney’s latest reimagining that takes advantage of the advancements in technology. The original 1994 movie is a classic and possibly the most significant movie to come from that era of Disney animation, with it being a beloved story for an entire generation (myself included). This puts the 2019 version in an awkward position. It can change too much, and fans of the original could revolt. But, not enough differences will raise questions of what is the purpose of this Jon Favreau-directed movie. The cynical answer is the re-imagined The Lion King is a guaranteed way for Disney to make a lot of money, but the film quickly shows that what it has to offer visually is well worth the price of admission.
Favreau and Disney already seemed to perfect the photorealism approach in 2016 with The Jungle Book, but they blow that movie out of the water with what The Lion King accomplishes. From the very first shot as “Circle of Life” is recreated, The Lion King is instantly spectacular. Everything looks so real that anyone fooled into believing most of this is practical cannot be blamed. The animal designs specifically are insanely detailed. With all but one mysterious shot being entirely done with CGI and a virtual production, The Lion King is a monumental achievement in how it continues to push the limits of what is possible.
What The Lion King does accomplish from a visual perspective is impressive, but there are still some areas that could’ve been improved. Generally, the decision to make this as realistic as possible meant eliminating some of the striking imagery from the animated version, with songs like “Be Prepared” or “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” feeling the repercussions of this decision. This lack of flare also can be seen with the creature’s distinguishing features too, as Pumba’s red look, Mufasa and Simba’s red manes, and the contrast in Scar’s colors all scaled back. This also hurts the ending of the film a bit as it becomes more difficult to tell the lions apart from one another.
Even with that, the animals still manage to look great for talking CGI creations, and Favreau and his animators manage to bring a good amount of emotion to them and the story. Most of this is articulated through body language, their voices, and facial expressions. The one aspect to them that could’ve used some improvement is with the eyes. Whether the animals are happy, sad, scared, or neutral, their eyes largely remain the same, and that does at times make it more challenging to recognize the emotion of the characters just by looking at them.
Visuals aside, The Lion King boasts an incredible voice cast that all deliver. As great as it is to hear James Earl Jones‘ older, grizzled voice back behind Mufasa, the highlight of the movie comes with Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who play Timon and Pumbaa respectively. These lovable characters instantly inject comedy into The Lion King, and they consistently hit it out of the park. They’ve got the jokes you need, and the movie lets the back-and-forth between them to go on more than we’ve seen before. Whether they’re joined by young Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, or adult Simba, voiced by Donald Glover, the Hakuna Matata trio are excellent, as is their rendition of the iconic song. Meanwhile, Beyoncé is fine as the older Nala but is outshined by Shahidi Wright Joseph as young Nala. John Oliver is a terrific Zazu, and Chiwetel Ejiofor does a good job differentiating his take from what Jeremy Irons did before.
With this voice cast and the visuals, it is easy to get wrapped up in the story of The Lion King all over again. It won’t surprise you in really any sense of the direction it takes though, which will either be great or terrible news depending on what you are looking for from these remakes. There are some added layers to Scar’s story and the hyenas’ role in all of this, and added time spent with young Simba and Nala is a delight. The important part with The Lion King is recreating the key emotional moments of the film, and it does a great job of doing just that. The stampede sequence is just as gripping, if not more so.
The other defining piece of The Lion King is its music, and the 2019 version is mostly successful in that regard. Hans Zimmer’s score is just as magical as before but has some new additions. Main sequences like “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” are the best, with “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” becoming something more believable. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is graced with the vocals of Childish Gambino and Beyoncé to unsurprisingly grand results. The one that song that underwhelms is “Be Prepared,” which is a shame. Scar’s signature song is shorter and not as grandiose, both in terms of the music itself and the visuals.
While stances on The Lion King will pretty much be based on whether or not you want it to be familiar or different, The Lion King is a must-see for the VFX work alone. In that case, it is just as equally worthy of seeing in IMAX, with the 3D even adding to the impressive display. Is the 2019 version of The Lion King as great as the animated version? No, but it is a great recreation and achievement on its own.
4 ticket stubs out of 5
The Lion King is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Did you see The Lion King? If so, let us know what you thought in the comments! But remember, we’re all friends here, so keep the conversation civil. If you want more coverage on The Lion King, check out the crew’s review in this episode of Friends and Film!