The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. When I tell you that moment changed my life, I'm not overstating things. This is the movie that made me fall in love with movies... the one that started my continued love affair with Disney. My deaf, yes deaf, grandfather took me to see this movie when I was six years old. It has always held one of my most special places in my heart. The Lion King is and forever will be my favorite Disney movie and right up there on my all-time list. (...and for the record, I also adore the Broadway show.)
You can imagine the gamut of emotions that ran through me when I first heard Disney was planning to remake it. From sheer joy to see this special movie again to the terror they would somehow ruin my childhood... I felt it all and everything in between. So, after hearing casting announcements, catching glimpses of trailers and praying to the movie gods that I wouldn't be completely disappointed, the day finally arrived and I put on my Lion King shirt to headed off to the theater.
With nearly impossible standards to live up to, I'm both happy and so relieved to report I'm thrilled with how this movie turned out. I was bracing myself for a shot by shot remake of the most beloved movie of my childhood, and while that is mostly the case, the magic was still in there and presented itself in a new enough way to make it worth it. The film is just a true masterpiece in its technological achievement. Every frame is just visually remarkable and there's no denying that. It's gorgeous.
I don't know what expectations people hold these live-action remakes to and if they're at all possible to achieve. There's simply no pleasing everyone when you start tinkering with these classics. I think it's fair to say as long as you go into this or any Disney remake with an open mind, you'll enjoy the nostalgia and hopefully experience those magical moments once again.
I'll leave the plot mostly out of this review because, much like Aladdin earlier this year, not much has changed. Truthfully, the only differences are a few more minutes of dialogue with more about Scar's backstory, a little more focus on Shenzi the hyena (who is pretty scary), and a little more fighting for Nala.
Overall, the new cast of voices is what was my biggest pleasant surprise. For me, Billy Eichner steals the whole movie as Timon. His chemistry with Seth Rogen as Pumbaa is a total home run. He's an effortlessly funny, delightful little warthog. The animation around their characters is nothing short of perfection and elevates every scene. They are just a complete breath of fresh air into this familiar story and I truly couldn't love them more. John Oliver was a brilliant Zazu with some impeccably timed news jokes that worked beautifully with his Last Week Tonight persona.
I was also pleasantly surprised by both our Simbas! Young Simba's voice was so full of life and reminded me just enough of Jonathan Taylor Thomas without being a carbon copy. And I really liked Donald Glover more than I thought I would. His best scenes are with Timon and Pumbaa. I'd be remiss to not give a special call out to Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André as our comedic relief to what are otherwise pretty terrifying hyenas. You can tell they definitely benefited from recording together.
James Earl Jones. Perfect. Need I say more?
I now must address the two main concerns I had after seeing the first trailer: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Beyoncé. Not having Jeremy Irons back as Scar was a major, major concern for me. Scar is such an absolutely iconic villain and Ejiofor frankly lacks that dripping sass we all fell in hate-love with in the original. By about half way through the film I was okay with the new take on Scar in this remake, but it certainly doesn't live up to the original. And "Be Prepared" was an utter letdown in every way.
Now I hope the Beyhive doesn't come for me, but the second I heard Beyoncé's voice in the trailer and the first line she spoke in the movie, I audibly rejected it. She does nothing of note with Nala whatsoever. I was afraid she would distract me, which luckily didn't happen as much as I was worried it might... Fact is, I can't figure out why she was cast outside of name recognition. Her voice acting did nothing for me. She's perfectly fine in "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," but in the spoken dialogue I could've had any number of actresses fill her spot.
Finally, the score and sound mixing in this movie are a major contributing factor to what takes this hyper-realistic version to another level. It's so authentic and beautiful that it lifts the entire movie. The score helps drive the emotion where the animation was restricted to its animalistic realism. And the sound mixing is remarkable in how they captured and highlighted the sounds of all the creatures so well. I couldn't end this review without giving proper credit to Hans Zimmer and the sound mixing team.
While it is true you lose a lot of that emotional animation magic from the original, this version of The Lion King makes up for in sheer beauty. Sure, the faces are going to be less expressive because they're making this look as realistic as you can while still having animals speaking... but I found the new voice actors (+ OG James Earl Jones) and the gorgeous technical components of this movie to capture its own new magic. This Lion King superfan is satisfied. Long live the King!
Brit's Tip: Set your expectations accordingly, and you'll have a great time. Relish every moment you get with Timon and Pumbaa, especially during "Hakuna Matata!"