**I’d like to start this off with a bit of an asterisk. I am going to say a lot of negative things about this movie. I have a complicated relationship with it and at the end of the day, I don’t think The Lion King works in a more grounded world. That said, there is a light at the end of this critical tunnel as I will end with plenty of positive things. Now on to the review**
You’ve never seen anything like Jon Favreau’s “live-action” re-imagining of The Lion King. It truly is a jaw-dropping achievement in visual wizardry that boasts staggeringly lifelike renderings of the African plains and its wildlife. Paradoxically, a literal translation of The Lion King goes against the fantastical nature of the 1994 animated classic.
In other words, the animals here behave strictly as they would in the real world and not according to how they’re feeling, like in the original. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) doesn’t roll his eyes at the nativity of his young nephew Simba (JD McCrary) or sport a sinister smile as he’s plotting the death of his brother Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Likewise, Simba doesn’t frown or cry after learning that he may have inadvertently killed his father, nor do his eyes frighteningly flare up in the face of a hungry pack of wild hyenas. Instead, they wear the same indifferent stare to every occasion. The lack of emoting isn’t limited to lions, either. It applies to all Pride Lands creatures big and small.
Worse yet is a feast of stale line readings that continually crop up to kill the momentum. It’s as if Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book) instructed his cast to temper their performances to better match the mostly uncomprehending behavior of the animals they’re voicing; all in the name of bringing The Lion King into “the real world.”
It doesn’t stop there. Not only does the literalism of this new adaptation drain much of the story’s emotion, but it significantly dampens the vibrant musical productions that make the original so memorable. Don’t go in expecting spotlights to miraculously shine down from the sky on cue, lions to swing from vines by the mouth or cubs to piggyback on ostriches. Those things don’t happen in the real world, so they don’t happen here and you’re just going to have to accept that.
Another odd flailing from Favreau comes through in the film editing. A handful of crucial beats are cut irritatingly short. It feels especially unnatural if you’re intuitively familiar with the first film and expecting brief pauses at certain times.
By the time the iconic title card hit at the end and the house lights came up, I still bore a stupid smile on my face. Though it’s fundamentally flawed, The Lion King genuinely made me laugh. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen in particular steal every scene their in as Timon and Pumbaa respectively; and unlike every other performance, these two maintain the spirits of those characters through renditions all their own. Ironically, they were always a breath of fresh air when they were on screen.
I’d probably be committing heresy if I didn’t mention that Beyoncé is in this movie. She plays adult Nala and like in 1994, she doesn’t have much to do. Childish Gambino himself Donald Glover has one of my favorite moments in the film as adult Simba. The two go in together on a lovely rendition of Can You Feel the Love Tonight? though I imagine Donald recorded his vocals while hovering over Beyoncé’s shoulder because she strongly overpowers him.
Admittedly, I’ve never struggled so much with whether or not I should recommend a movie. Considering this is essentially a shiny shell of the original Lion King, I’d probably say wait for home video if you’re interested. Still, I can’t deny how breathtaking the visuals look, particularly on an IMAX screen. Knowing me, my answer will probably change with the breeze, so I’ll leave you with my score and let you decide.
⭐️⭐️⭐️ (out of five)
Have you had a chance to check out The Lion King? If so, what did you think? Were you equally impressed or is the original still number one? Swing on down to the comments below and let me know what you think!