Movie Review: The Lion King (2019)

The reviews for the new version of the Disney classic, THE LION KING, are trickling in and they’re not pretty. Nearly everyone is saying that while the film looks amazing, they’re wondering what the point of the exercise was if not just to milk another cash cow in Disney herd. Meh-yeow!

In case you haven’t seen the original, old-school, animated version from 1994, THE LION KING tells the (debatable, but I’ll get to that later) Shakespearean story of Simba, a lion cub who is born to Mufasa, the king of The Pride Lands in the Serengeti. Simba has a knack for getting himself and others into jams, one of which results in the death of Mufasa. Heartbroken and feeling guilty thanks to his uncle Scar’s evil machinations, he goes into self-imposed exile leaving Scar to take over the pride. Simba eventually meets Pumbaa, a flatulent warthog, and Timon, a chatty meerkat, and the three of them live a hakuna matata existence far from The Pride Lands, which Scar and his hyena friends have now turned into an ecological wasteland. When his childhood friend, Nala, shows up hunting for prey, she convinces Simba that he must go home and fight Scar to take up his rightful place as king.

With really minor tweaks – the female lions in the pride now do the hunting, which lionesses do, for example – the 2019 version is essentially the same story. In fact, for most of the film, you would be forgiven for thinking you’re experiencing déjà vu. It’s shot-for-shot, note-for-note, word-for-word identical to the original. The big difference here is the animation. Contrary to what the Disney press releases are calling a live action adaptation, THE LION KING (2019) is more correctly termed a photorealistic animated clone because there is nothing live about it and there’s not too much that’s new. The animation is admittedly awesome, so much so that you’ll think you’re watching a documentary on Discovery’s ANIMAL PLANET except that these animals talk and sing. In a nod to diversity, the voice cast of this production is mostly Black. James Earl Jones is the only actor to reprise his role as Mufasa because, let’s be honest, who else could fill Mufasa’s paws? Okay, maybe Morgan Freeman. Donald Glover (SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY; SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING; THE MARTIAN) has taken over from the very lily white Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba; Beyoncé has taken over from Moira Kelly as the adult Nala; Chiwetel Ejiofor (MARY MAGDALENE; THE MARTIAN) has taken over from Jeremy Irons as Scar; and JD McCrary taken over from Jonathan Taylor Thomas (TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT) as young Simba, to name just a few. Ejiofor is perhaps the weakest of the bunch because he doesn’t have Irons’ sonorous voice. The biggest improvements to the original voice cast, though, are the inclusion of Seth Rogen (THE DISASTER ARTIST; STEVE JOBS; THE INTERVIEW) and especially Billy Eichner (TV’s PARKS AND RECREATION), who take the story’s comic relief to new heights. You’ll be roaring with laughter (sorry, I couldn’t resist) at their banter. Eichner is by far the best thing about this film.

I was never a fan of the original because I struggled to get on board with the marketing spin that the story is a riff on Hamlet. Yes, I see the similarity but it pales in comparison to another story I saw when I watched the film – the Bible – where Mufasa is G-d, Simba is Jesus and Scar is Satan. Even with its biblical allusion, something about the story bothered me even more. There are two times in the original where Scar is framed against a crescent moon. Scar is dark-furred and has a black mane whereas Mufasa and Simba have tawny fur and manes. In my mind, THE LION KING is also a story about an epic fight between Christianity and Islam where the Christians are the good guys and the Muslims are the bad. I’m amazed that Muslims around the world haven’t picked up on this… or maybe they have. I’ve only ever read one essay online on this subject. THE LION KING (2019) is slightly better in that department as there is only one scene of Scar framed by the crescent moon, and Scar isn’t quite as dark-furred as his earlier incarnation. That’s not to say that director Jon Favreau (THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016); CHEF) is racist or anti-Muslim but I believe he could have been more sensitive to how the film could be perceived.

Leaving all the story subtleties aside, the songs, with the exception of “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, were and still are rather bland. Even the film’s opening number, “Circle of Life”, seems like an overstuffed paean. THE LION KING (2019) offers up a couple of new songs including “Spirit”, a soaring number co-written and sung Beyoncé, and “Never Too Late”, a bouncy tune that reeks of Oscar bait written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and sung by John over the film’s end credits, but neither is particularly memorable. It’s still early days but “Spirit” has only reached #80 on UK’s Top 100 singles chart.

When I disagree with my colleagues, I’ll say it, but this time I agree with them. THE LION KING (2019) is a visual spectacle but completely pointless because it is so similar to the original. It doesn’t really matter what any of us say though, because this film is bullet-proof. Since it opened in China last week, and last Friday in the US and elsewhere, the film has already taken in more than US$500 million. It will most certainly break the billion dollar mark before the summer is over.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, July 26th, 8:30 am HK time!

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