Summary: A remake of the beloved 1994 animated classic, in which a young lion cub must accept his destiny as King of the Pride Lands.
I’m trying to keep this as unbiased, but that doesn’t seem possible. The last thing I don’t want to do is make that argument of, “It’s not the original!” Just my own view: things change, things evolve, and for the most part, works should stand as their own entities. I realize we’re all prone to be more disappointed and unfairly critical when something isn’t done “our” way, and I want to acknowledge that just because my personal palette isn’t tickled doesn’t mean it’s not well done. I don’t like interfering with people’s experience if it’s something they find profound and worth watching.
I’ve had to adjust this scale a lot with these Disney remakes. I’m overly familiar with the music because it’s gorram awesome. When Beauty and the Beast came out, I swore up and down that I had to judge it off the soundtrack first and was immediately disappointed based off what I heard, which really affected my viewing of the movie; so, I switched this up for Aladdin and went in blind and I had an immensely better time. Now The Lion King, let’s just put it this way- I can close my eyes and see an entire song. I have fond memories of that video game, too.
I went into this movie blind too and I have a whole bunch of feelings. Not good feelings either. It’s… it’s weird watching semi-realistic animals talk. It doesn’t register as animated and it’s not real, either. It took about ten minutes for me to feel this out of body experience of, “I’m watching a movie about a talking lion. Wait, why can’t all the birds talk?” I think there are a lot of liberties an audience can take when watching pure, hand-drawn animation- there’s a different suspension of disbelief and it’s easier to accept things like a genie, talking furniture, and talking animals.
Now, to go along with that is that in the effort to make the animation realistic here and thus the animals more animal-like, there’s a heavy loss of expression in each of the characters. Remember that part in the original where Mufasa says, “And worse- you put Nala in danger!” and how regretful his eyes were? Or how scared Simba looks in some scenes? The slow realization that a grub was delicious? You could infer Zazu’s feelings based on his eye movement. All of that is lost. And this isn’t to criticize the acting- I genuinely liked all of the voice performances. I even liked Chiwetel Ejiofer as Scar (I was most iffy about him) and I realized in my viewing that it’s not Ejiofer at all. It’s the animation, specifically the lack of facial expressions and distinguishable features. The lines feel emptier because the animation is unable to drive the delivery home. It’s the pairing of the line with the animation that makes everything seem a little overreaching, too artificial, and just… dead eyes. Shudder.
I want to highlight Billy Eichner’s performance as Timon, because he was just delightful and his animation actually worked for me. With Timon being a meerkat, he has a lot of twitches and sharp movements and it went really, really well with his dialogue. I’d watch a whole Timon movie – and no, I don’t want it to be a remake of any of the movies with lions. Seth Rogen as Pumbaa also worked. And- just because I guess this is the paragraph where I call out the good stuff- I liked the music arrangements. They were good. Baby Simba and Baby Nala have really, really good, clear voices. Everyone calm your shit.
Here’s my beef with this one in regards to the original- they made some really questionable decisions in which visuals to take from the 1994 original. There are lots- LOTS- of shots that are directly taken from the 1994 version, and even some sequences that are shot-for-shot, cut-for-cut. Then, there are those memorable things that don’t make their way in at all. And I get it- the 1994 version is incredible in making impactful visuals in accordance with the music, and maybe they didn’t want aaaaall of that. I just find it odd that they went shot-for-shot for the Circle of Life– even showing the trail of ants in and out of focus- but left out the baby giraffe blinking when the work “blinking” is said. Or that the stampede was also shot-for-shot, but there was the absence of the line “We gotta go home.” Simba not roaring on beat when he reaches the Iron Throne- stuff like that. Basically, if you’re going to heavily remind me of the original to the point where I expect the original and then not give it, making me miss the original- you’ve given me no choice except to compare it to the original. That’s on you then because I went into this not expecting anything and not wanting the original in the first place. . Either give me a shameless remake or something where the majority of elements are new- don’t half-ass it.
Oh, and let’s not half-ass unnecessary, dead plot points either. Shenzei has bone to pick with Nala now? Some love triangle that Sarabi, Scar, and Mufasa were in back in the day? Literally nobody was asking these questions.
If I had to rank this with the other Golden Age of Disney remakes, this would fall into a very distant second place behind Aladdin but before Beauty and the Beast and that’s mostly because while I wouldn’t watch it again, I’d probably give the soundtrack another whirl or ten. Man, it’s good.
On a more personal note, I know there are very few times in life where a movie makes an impression so strong that you remember what it was like seeing it for the first time. The original Circle of Life was one of those moments for me, and I hope a bunch of other kids got giddy and absorbed when those first few notes hit. Everyone deserves to be blown away by Lebo M.