Mufasa’s ghost famously tells Simba, “Remember who you are.” After seeing the reimagining of The Lion King, I feel the need to say the same thing to the new film itself.
In 1994 when Disney debuted the hand-drawn version of The Lion King, the release was celebrated at Walt Disney World with a live stage show, Legend of the Lion King, which incorporated puppetry and costumed characters with projected scenes from the film. The dependence on puppetry would be prophetic for a later milestone in The Lion King’s legacy, but the aspect of this 1994 live production that’s perhaps most intriguing was its placement: in Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland. While a tale set in the jungles of Africa might not be the best fit for an area meant to mimic a medieval castle courtyard, it hinted at something important: The Lion King, while incorporating very real African culture, was a story rooted in fantasy.
When the new reimagining of The Lion King celebrates its inherently fantastical elements, it soars. More frequently, though, director Jon Favreau strips the story of its fantasy. Photorealistic visuals are the driver rather than the vehicle, leading to a film that oftentimes falls short of the emotion we all know good and well it has the ability to pack.
The imagery here is nothing short of stunning. Mufasa’s mane blowing in the wind. Swarms of insects populating the air. The texture of the grass. The veins lining Scar’s body. This movie is an achievement in animation, and there are sequences that act as showcases of the medium beautifully. Where the believability swings too far, though, is in the facial expressions (or lack thereof) for its characters. Staying true to how real animals might behave, all characters’ faces lack basic emotions, depriving the film of a huge part of its soul. Many of the heaviest moments in the story don’t pack a punch because there is no emotive character to empathize with. Animals may not smile or frown in real life, but they also don’t sing, so it’s odd as to why this was the sword to die on.
The peculiar thing is that when the film chooses to embrace its fantasy, it does so phenomenally. Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively) are a prime example. They are the two characters who feel the most “cartoony” in the original film, but rather than depleting their comic personalities for this new outing, those same traits are adapted and expanded upon. What’s more, they have a collection of wonderful new dialogue rather than relying solely on repeated lines from the original. Since this seems to have been done to perfection with Timon and Pumbaa, it feels puzzling as to why the same approach was not carried for the rest of the film, both in the script and in the catalogue of iconic songs.
The remake seems to repress a quality that made it special, thinking it was unwanted in this new context. It couldn’t have been more wrong. This film is a visual knockout and, at times, truly provides some excellent new depth to an iconic Disney classic. It’s just selective about where it chooses to put forth the effort that it’s clearly capable of achieving.
Somehow, though, this movie is more than just a movie. During my screening, audience members came in Simba shirts, or with their face painted like a lion, or carrying a cute little Pumbaa plush toy. They left singing “Hakuna Matata” together in the parking lot. The Lion King is a cultural phenomenon, and the remake does succeed in giving us reason to celebrate the legacy of the original, but then again so did the 2011 3D re-release of the 1994 classic. The 2019 remake is within the same paw print mark rather than taking a new step.