Reviewed: The Lion King
It is the same question that makes its way into your head after having a particularly rowdy night when you’ve got work the next morning: was it worth it? This is what critics are asking of Disney’s recently-released remake of The Lion King.
The good folk at Disney did, admittedly, pull out all the stops for this one, with a host of big names joining as voice actors and musicians (including Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, and Elton John on the soundtrack).
Presumably, the main reason for the remake in the first place is some seriously advanced technology that connects this movie firmly with the now-familiar concept of ‘live action’. The catch is, though, that in the world of commercialism, capitalism, and, well, the box office, the fundamental reason for the remake is most likely more basic than that: money.
This is what makes any contribution to the debate ‘was it worth it’ ultimately seem futile. The bottom line is that there wasn’t really the grounds nor the need to remake the smash hit that was The Lion King, besides the prospect of some pretty hefty ticket sales. The very fact that it was and remains a smash hit means that any remake will inevitably come up against endless comparisons, and will probably lose. But it also gives Disney the ability, theoretically, to do anything they want.
If you think about it, even when the film we all love is altered and brought out again, it is still, in essence, the film we love. So we will curiously speculate about it, and we will buy our tickets. In other words, whether this remake is any match for the original, it has still emerged from the original itself, and this means that it is already doomed (for fans of the 1994 version are, after all, furiously defensive of its position in the Disney canon) but it is also automatically a success. Bad press is still press. This is Disney beating itself at its own game.
So, what does it shape up to, then? What does it bring that its ancestor didn’t already have? The answer is, unfortunately, not much, or at least not much that has been welcomed upon its reception. The graphics are undeniably impressive, provoking remarks from critics likening the film more to a nature documentary than our favourite Disney desert tale. It really does look astonishingly real: every hair on Mufasa’s mane, every shade of the sunset, every pebble under the tiny, adorable paws of baby Simba in the opening scene – everything is laid out with breathtaking clarity. But this is, again, the divisive core of the remake. Here is a 2019 update of a 1994 classic, but one that, in deviating from the classic – even in an attempt to modernise it – shoots itself in the foot.
People are complaining that they miss the animated film (which seems a little like they are missing the point: a re-animated version of the original animated version really would be puzzlingly obsolete), but they are specifically taking issue with the emotion – or a lack thereof. The original film is being credited as more emotional and hard-hitting, while this updated release, for all its technological glory, casts the animals in a way that means their mouths can move hardly at all, making their speech seem disjointed and any exaggerated facial expressions non-existent. Who knew a 1994 screening of talking lions would be championed as a heartfelt masterpiece, even in the face of such cinematic advancements. But then, that is Disney’s magic, its superior power. Its films will always stand the test of time. As this remake proves, topping them is very difficult.
In its attempt to do so, however, the remake has altered a number of aspects of the original, although in terms of shots it is pretty much identical. What we don’t get is a few of the original songs, including Morning Report, while the updated version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight offered by Donald Glover and Beyonce is significantly less sultry – and, as some viewers might be quick to note, it has been shifted around somewhat, now no longer taking place under a star-speckled sky. (Can You Feel the Love This Afternoon, anyone?)
Apart from its graphics, what is seemingly most notable to audiences about the remake is what it lacks, although director Jon Favreau definitely did one thing right in casting actors of African descent as the lion and hyena characters – there are no longer any excuses to be made in regard to diversity. Another praised element is this film’s updated take on much-loved pair Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Though the comedy is still family-friendly and a little on the nose, these two provide some genuinely refreshing entertainment that really does rival the original.
The final verdict is a mixed one, then, when you consider the ways this remake is at once impressive and unfortunately unnecessary. It will never reach the heights of its predecessor simply because it can never be its predecessor.
There is only one The Lion King, but that film is so deeply ingrained in the Disney canon – and arguably the canon in general, at least to some extent – that it's able to be reworked entirely off the back of its continued fame. Perhaps the ‘point’ of this remake isn’t how it was done, but what it is, or what it proves Disney to be: a true creator of classics. It may offer nothing new to the original besides some impressive photorealism, but in doing so it is revealing of the original itself: its timelessness, and its fundamental Disney magic.
All in all, the remake may not quite give you the thrill of the original, but it does have a purpose, albeit a nebulous one, which is to prompt us to rediscover Disney’s powers to create something remarkable, even if you find the original a lot more remarkable than the film in cinemas today. And to get a chance to truly remember the magic of Disney – even if only by comparative standards – means that, yes, in a lot of people’s books, it probably was worth it.