There’s a dispute over whether this film is an animated film or a live-action one. It was created to look like live-action, but the way it was made was using only CGI animation. This is one of Disney’s dozen or so live-action remakes of their classic, animated films. Most of those remakes involve some living person or living creature that gets actually photographed with a camera. This one is different because no living person or creature was photographed this time around. Every element was made inside a computer, so this film blurs that line, but the industry seems to have settled on calling this live-action. Of all those such remakes, this one is a remake of Disney’s most successful animated film. The Lion King (1994) still stands in the top five of highest-grossing animated films. Aside from its financial success, the film was also critically acclaimed. It’s considered the best in terms of the way it looks, the story and the characters. The live-action elements look very real, as if the animals were absolutely in the flesh, but, other than that photo-realism, this film is slightly off and doesn’t capture the emotion and magic of the original, animated feature.
Director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book and Iron Man) does what was essentially done in the remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017). He creates basically a shot-for-shot remake. However, it’s not the same. The characters and setting on screen do have a tactile and three-dimensional quality that pops off the screen. It’s a shame that the emotions and engagement with said characters don’t also pop off the screen. Aside from a couple of scene-stealing characters who enliven things, mainly due to the actors’ comedic vocal work, there isn’t much that’s memorable about this film.
It’s odd but one outstanding moment in the film is where it directly references Beauty and the Beast. However, if one is going to compare this film to another Disney flick, it wouldn’t be Beauty and the Beast. The makers of Honest Trailers, the Emmy-nominated YouTube channel, made the comparison to Disney’s Frozen (2013). At this point, it’s really just comparing one fairy tale to another and seeing that many of them have similar elements. However, the story here is about a kingdom in Africa where the king is killed and the heir has his placement on the throne threatened by a family member. This is essentially the plot of Black Panther (2018).
The film doesn’t have the same sense of culture that Black Panther had. It doesn’t even have the same sense of culture or sense of setting that the original The Lion King had. Yes, it’s repeating the same words as the 1994 cartoon, but the culture of the characters and setting doesn’t translate. It tries when the characters have a discussion about faith versus atheism. It tries when the characters have a discussion about immaturity versus responsibility. However, those discussions fall flat because the film can’t dive into the depths necessary or even rise to the heights necessary to make those things not be simply flat. It’s not dangerous enough. It’s not sweet or sensual enough. Other than some comedic moments, there isn’t much, if any emotional resonance.
Donald Glover (Atlanta and Community) voices Simba, a lion cub who is the heir to the throne. He’s basically a prince. He’s apparently the only child to his parents who are king and queen of not only all the lions in this area but all other animals in this area. Simba as a child is very eager to grow up and be like his father whom he perceives as very brave and powerful. Simba’s eagerness to prove himself becomes his main flaw initially and his chief source of guilt later in the film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave and Kinky Boots) voices Scar, the uncle to Simba. He was heir to the throne before Simba’s birth. This bothers him because he wants to be king and now that possibility is more removed from him. He’s driven by bitterness and jealousy. Aside from his schemes to do so, there isn’t much personality to him. He does spew some nonsense about how his brother who is king doesn’t allow certain kinds of hunting. However, the movie never underscores or really sells the division between the two over this issue.
We never see any hunting. There’s one moment where Scar is presumably eating a dead gazelle. We see part of the gazelle’s carcass and a little bit of blood on Scar’s face, but it’s not enough to sell the idea of Scar wanting to rule with this apex predator dominance that makes him scary. Scar also makes an alliance with the hyenas, which seem to be the only other carnivores in the kingdom. There’s tension between the lions and hyenas that precede this film that’s never really explained.
Beyoncé (Dreamgirls and Obsessed) voices Nala, the best friend to Simba. She grows up to become his love interest, even at first resisting that idea. When Scar makes his stand as the new king, Nala is one of the few to vocalize her opposition and disapproval of his ways. This is something for her character. However, the film does a disservice to her romantic angle. There is a musical number from the 1994 classic that is repeated here. It’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which is the Oscar-winning song. It’s the song that’s supposed to show Nala falling in love with Simba, but, beyond the lyrics, the visuals don’t sell that romantic turn.
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.