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Review: The Lion King (2019)

by Tim Brayton

The refrain echoing through many of the negative reviews of Disney's new remake of The Lion King – and even a few of the not-as-enthusiastic positive reviews – has been that the film is "pointless." Which, yeah, it is: a scene-by-scene, line-by-line, and frequently shot-by-shot remake of the 1994 classic that is weaker on essentially every possible point of comparison. The only reason to watch the new film while the 1994 film exists is because the new one is in theaters and thus is bigger.

So let's not belabor that. Instead, let's try, as much as possible, to take the film on its on terms. Let's pretend, if we possibly can, that this is a brand new story told using cutting-edge technology, and freed from the shackles of memory and nostalgia. Sad to say, even if that might mean that The Lion King isn't pointless, it's still not very good...

The plot you most likely know: lion prince Simba (JD McCrary) just can't wait to be king, but his wicked uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) frames him for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), as part of a plot to usurp the leadership over a valley called the Pride Lands. Some years later, Simba has grown up (voiced now by Donald Glover), and must find it within himself to be brave enough and responsible enough to challenge Scar for his birthright. Comic sidekicks and love interests pop along the way.


The hook this time around is that the film has been made in its entirety using photorealistic CGI: the latest in Disney's ongoing effort to make "live-action" remakes of all of its most marketable animated classics.

Except that in this case there's nothing "live" about it. Every animal and every part of the landscape is created with some of the most advanced visual effects work in history. They've created lions that absolutely look just like real lions as they talk about dynastic politics and deliver one-liners. And if you can imagine a real lion speaking English in a way that makes sense given the structure of its mouth, congratulations! You're smarter than I am. Also, you're smarter than the animators who made The Lion King, because these creatures start out in the Uncanny Valley and never leave it.

Though, to be fair, they do get a little more tolerable as the film progresses. It's difficult to say whether this is solely because one gets used to the the weird spectacle as it goes along, or if things actually improve; I can state only that I never felt the powerful discomfort watching CGI animals going subtly but fundamentally wrong more than during "Circle of Life," the opening number in which baby Simba is presented to a crowd of waiting animals. The big problem here isn't the pitch-perfect rendering of the CG, which feels genuinely revolutionary in its way, nor in the character animation, though there's a distinct melting fluidity to Simba's features in this scene that looks like no creature God put on this Earth (baby Simba is, by a good margin, the worst-looking important character in the film). The big problem is the compositing, the stitching-together of the different CGI animals into one space. When Rafiki the baboon pulls Simba from the side of his mother Sarabi – three different digital objects built into one computer, all interacting – it feels powerfully like he's grabbing air from a space several feet in front of her. Everything floats in this sequence; it has no weight, and no sense of depth.

Thankfully, the film never looks that bad again (though weightlessness is an occasional problem). But so what? The best that The Lion King can ever offer is unprecedented photorealism, in a story about singing lions (but not, mind you, dancing lions, which makes the musical numbers all feel awfully drab and lifeless). To the question "is photorealism actually the right fit for this story?" the film doesn't merely fail to offer an answer; it seems to be the case that nobody involved in making it even thought that the question might come up. Nature-documentary realism for realism's sake is the whole of the film's aesthetic strategy. And if this extreme realism makes it all feel persistently grotesque and uncomfortably impossible, oh well. Take it or leave it.

It would be hard for even the best-told story to survive the gorgeously expensive ugliness of the film's CGI. This isn't the best-told story. The vocal performances, with barely any exceptions, are almost as lifeless as the animation (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as comic relief meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, are the exceptions, and I haven't decided yet if I think they're good exceptions). Glover's Simba is all shrill, one-note enthusiasm; Ejiofor's Scar is all gravelly, one-note menace; John Oliver's neurotic bird courtier Zazu (transformed from sarcastic and competent to blithering idiot in this version) is so barely functional as a performance that I hesitate to even ascribe one note to it. The cast feels awkwardly aware that they are starring in an update of a generation-defining classic, and rather than read the lines with a thought to creating personalities reacting in real time, they mostly feel like they're intoning aphorisms, much in the way that bad actors recite rather than perform Shakespeare.

Which, Hamlet influence or not, this isn't. And bluntly, The Lion King has never been further from Shakespeare than in this ugly, tonally flat, emotionally neutered – and, yes, pointless – overpriced white elephant of a remake.

Grade: D+

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Reader Comments (19)

I could not agree more. The best performance of the movie was young Simba which is extremely odd for a cast this talented (had to look it up but the actor is J.D. McCrary, and I hope his stock is on the rise now). It was an uncomfortable experience.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Another Live action remake to skip. I don't understand why they don't just rerelease the originals especially if they've going to be remade shot for shot. People would still pay money to see them.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G

Tim, did you seriously just write two different reviews of this piece of shit for two different sites? You sir are either a very brave man, or a masochist (hahaha)...

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Tim, thank you for your wise words and for seeing this so I don't have to. Can you feel the hate tonight.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This review confirmed for me to never go see this, not ever.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

You get a medal for sitting through this cynical film.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

No mention of Beyonce?

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

/3rtful - I'm guessing this sums it up: "The vocal performances, with barely any exceptions, are almost as lifeless as the animation."

I doubt Beyonce did anything special with this role (side note: like many, I love her as a musician), so in the context of this D+ review it probably warrants no mention.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGFF

I thought it was a pleasant watch, if inferior to the original in every way. The voice cast could not have been more monotone (except perhaps Rogen/Eichner) even James Earl Jones lost his gravitas. Scar's "Be Prepared" number was pathetic. Overall not disastrous but I can see where the more negative reviews are coming from.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEoghan McQ

Beyonce ain't no musician :)

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

@Me-Agreed. Just an overrated singer who became famous by her daddy firing 2 girls to replace 2 other girls only for one of them to quit and make Beyonce a bigger star than the other girls in Destiny's Child while she rode on Jay-Z's dick to become a bigger star despite some damn good songs.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

This has to be the most pointless remake in film history- and replacing wonderful animation with CGI critters is not an improvement. It worked in "The Jungle Book" because that movie was not a frame by frame remake of the original.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Oh god, imagine being pressed about Beyoncé since her DC days. It must have have been a long and bitter 20 years for you.

July 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Beyonce really doesn’t deserve a mention. The less said about her boring and sometimes ridiculous voice work the better. And don’t even get me started on the use of Spirit in the film. As pointless as the film itself. They even made Nala a bigger character (like I’m sure she demanded, not asked) and she still didn’t do a thing with it.

I think Ejiofor got better as the film went along and the memory of the awful new arrangement for Be Prepared was sort of erased. Glover showed how bored he was to be there. You couldn’t even hear him in Circle of Life.

Eichner was the star of the film and Rogen was close behind. They were perfect together.

July 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Roberts

Isn't Beyonce as Nala the most basic of choices.

July 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

If Beyonce really wanted to have film career she would have produced and starred in a movie by now- she was supposed to be in Eastwood's jazz version of a "A Star in Born"

July 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

That’s a great piece of writing

July 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Kusnic

This is why Tim is my favorite reviewer. It's hard to not look at this movie as not only everything that's wrong with movies, but everything that's wrong with society - crassly going after money, mimicking actual sentiment without earning or embodying it, getting people on board with famous names only, replicating something people loved in a facile and unnecessary way.

July 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Guys, I agree completely with this. I left the theater OFFENDED. I looked around me several times to see if I was the only one who could feel that the singing was grossly devoid of tone and feeling. Their utterly expressionless faces (being animals and all) made for such cringe-worthy moments when these big, explosive musical numbers were delivered by blank faces and barely moving mouths. About halfway through "Be Prepared," I was like "OH he's singing!" Tragic.

I have to admit, I GUFFAWED when Mufasa was pushed by Scar (25yo spoiler!) They made James Earl Jones scream in the MOST AWKWARD way, I can't get over it. Couldn't they just leave that thunderous lion roar of betrayal? All you get is an "arrrrhhhhhh!!!!" and it is both hilarious and heartbreakingly disappointing.

Not one hair. NOT ONE HAIR stood up for this film, and I was so looking forward to go down that road of nostalgia.

Looks like all their time and resources were put into making this look as realistic as possible that they forgot performance along the way.

This feels like on of those times in high school when you would plagiarize an essay straight from Wikipedia and then just hit the thesaurus and change random words here and there. A straight up literary mastermind.

That's what The Lion King was.

July 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMaggy

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