'The Lion King' film review: Slavishly devoted remake ... is OK
The supposed live-action remake of "The Lion King" (opening in theaters July 19) is a perfectly fine Disney film that is not live action nor is it really a reimagining ... but it's still good.
In short: A lion prince flees his pride after the murder of his father, forcing the young cub to learn responsibility. Voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver and James Earl Jones.
The impulse is to compare Jon Favreau's 2019 version of "Lion King" with the beloved 1994 animated classic. This is an unavoidable comparison that was always going to happen, especially when dealing with one of Disney's most cherished and adored animated movies. Ideally, the audience would be able to forget the original did not exist - but that's essentially impossible, and that's unfortunate for an otherwise pretty good movie that just doesn't stand up to its superior forerunner.
Anyone who has seen the classic "Lion King" has seen Favreau's "Lion King," and that's a problem. This is not merely a reimagining that retains the spirit of the original - the 2019 film is a “remake” in almost the most literal definition of the word. It's nearly a shot-for-shot remake in the vein of Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." The new film includes the same story beats, most of the general dialogue and all the familiar songs - yet the remake drags at times even to the point of boredom. And how a near carbon copy of a film lacks the energy of the original is simple: this update is 30 minutes longer than the original. That's no small setback - the 2019 version is fully 33 percent longer than the original -- all without adding any new subplots or characters. The accumulation of small, needless moments clogs up the otherwise fluid and elegant story of "The Lion King."
One sequence in particular encapsulates the difference between two versions. In both movies, a guilt-ridden Simba dejectedly collapses on some grass, wherein a small bit of his hair falls off, eventually finding its way to Rafiki, who learns Simba is still alive. The animated original sequence takes just over one minute - and it's a simple scene that follows Simba's hair floating on a gust of wind to Rafiki. The score shifts from Simba's sadness to Rafiki's joyful hope -- all within a minute. Meanwhile, the new film takes a much more circuitous route: involving some insects, the hair floating on a river, then being eaten by a giraffe... who eventually poops it out, so a dung beetle can roll the giraffe poop along until Simba's now excrement-covered tuft finds its way to Rafiki.
The animated classic uses simple, elegant and focused storytelling and magical realism to convey a powerful moment. The 2019 version takes the very same moment, and stretches it out to an arduous journey, achieving the same basic plot points - but draining out all the majesty and heart of the original scene. And that's basically how Favreau made his version of “The Lion King” - by shoving the original into a computer that made all the characters photo-realistic and added in just enough fat to the story to slow it down significantly.
Oh, and this film is not a live-action film. This is still very much an animated film - except the character design is photo-realistic. This then begs the question: what is the point of this "hand-drawn animated converted to photo-realistic animated" exercise -- and that's still pretty unclear. The most cynical interpretation is "cash grab." The most forgiving just accepting this as "The Lion King," as it would appear if it were a Discovery Channel documentary.
All that said, Favreau's "Lion King" is a fine movie. It doesn't advance or bringing anything significantly new to the story (aside from the novelty of photorealistic animation) - but it's still fundamentally the same wonderful story. This is not a bad movie by any stretch, it just lives in the shadow of its more powerful and moving predecessor.
Final verdict: Yes, this is still the wonderful story of "The Lion King," but a slightly inferior version that still entertaining in its own right.
"The Lion King" opens in theaters nationwide July 19. This film has a runtime of 118 minutes and is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.