Film remakes already have plenty to live up to without having to make up for the shortcomings of a previous reboot. Knowing this didn’t keep me from expecting more from Disney’s live-action version of The Lion King, after their endeavor with Aladdin let me down though. The Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin offered an empowered Princess Jasmine, but other changes and missed CGI (computer generated imagery) opportunities left me feeling annoyed and discontent (you can read my full review here). The Lion King had the added task of setting things right.
In the (unlikely) event that you have no idea what The Lion King (1994) is about, it’s kind of a coming of age tale with lots of anecdotes about life stages and how we’re all connected (so, imagine a child-appropriate NBC’s This is Us). Cub Simba (JD McCrary) is the heir to his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones; I'm so glad he was able to do the project, no one else would be right) throne, and his disgruntled uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is far from thrilled. Scar concocts a murderous plot with exiled hyenas, so he can rise to power. Simba narrowly escapes, but it’s assumed he’ll die in the wilderness. Meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) care for him until adulthood. Simba’s old friend (and eventual spouse) Nala (Beyoncé) crosses his path and relays how Scar ravaged the kingdom of natural resources. Simba (then voiced by Donald Glover) is resistant to the idea of returning home, and feels responsible for Mufasa’s death. Various happenings lead to an identity wake up call for him, and he ultimately challenges Scar’s rule.
Director Jon Favreau’s 2019 The Lion King (screenplay by Jeff Nathanson) is mostly faithful to its root text. Many revisions have a clear objective and/or magnify story elements. If there was going to be any similarity to Ritchie’s Aladdin, it could be with strengthening the presence of female leads. Nathanson gives Nala a more nuanced and empowering arc. We see her develop and hash out a grudge with principal hyena Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and ascend to primacy among the lionesses. She tries to respect the elders in the pack, but becomes impatient with their docility with Scar. She arouses them to fiercely take back their land. Beyoncé does surprisingly well blending in with the rest of the voice cast (Shahadi Wright Joseph portrays young Nala). I’ll admit I doubted her ability to do this, considering her distinctly deep and American Southern accent. There are times where you can tell she’s being careful with her enunciation, but it isn’t distracting.
Scar and Shenzi were given extra shading. 1994’s Scar is venomous, but his haughtiness and facetiousness put an attracting glimmer around his shadows. In 2019, he’s reserved, less saucy and his quips are bitter jabs, as opposed to humorous. Ejiofor brings Scar’s acidity and boiling resentment to the surface with his breathy and distressed delivery. Unreciprocated affections are tacked on to the list of things Scar is peeved about, as an infatuation with Mufasa’s wife Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) is intriguingly included. Previously, Shenzi was ill-intentioned, but too uproarious (as only Whoopi Goldberg, who was behind the mic then, can be) to hate. Her update is decidedly diabolical, and no matter is a laughing one. What prevents these character modifications from being a total buzz kill is their apparent purpose. Scar and Shenzi (and her troupe) are unmistakably ominous and scary. The hyenas are convincing as a threat, whereas before, you couldn’t take them seriously. This effect is why you might tolerate Scar’s divo snobbery and some of the hyena banter going missing.
Royal Mjuzi Rafiki (John Kani) is tinkered with, but the reason isn’t as patent, and the outcome isn’t as favorable. In the cartoon, the baboon (or mandrill, haha) is bountifully boisterous (voiced by Robert Guillaume). He may be a spiritual advisor, but that doesn’t stop him from having fun and ‘monkeying’ around while doing it (see what I did there, haha?). His hysterical laughter and playful teasing of others is a constant. 2019 Rafiki seems to have had a tranquilizer (and less screen time). While Kani does adequate work, you can’t resist fantasizing about what the late Robert Guillaume would’ve done to liven the ‘baboodrill’ up (shortened appearances and all). You long for his exuberance and hallmark inflections. Criminally, a notable Rafiki’s scene was removed. True to his fashion, he hits Simba upside the head with his staff as a demonstration of learning from the past. He says, “The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” Simba dodges Rafiki’s second attempt to whack him, successfully absorbing the lesson. Simba then musters up the courage to release his self-imposed guilt over Mufasa’s death, and face down Scar. It’s a meaningful instance, and one of the few that directly addresses Simba’s self-reproach. It’s also an epilogue to another pivotal scene that was edited for no perceptible cause.
Rafiki helps conjure the soul of Mufasa to descend from the heavens and speak to his unmoored son. He admonishes, “You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me...you are more than what you have become.” Mufasa follows this with urgings to Simba to “remember who he is,” and take his “place in the circle of life” as king. This and the Rafiki staff clip worked together to bring home the film’s central themes and Simba’s emotional trajectory. They evince how our ancestry and experiences are essential to who we are, and how a loss of identity can interrupt our destiny. Further, how our respective journeys are intertwined with others and can affect outcomes. Through Simba, we gain an understanding of the importance of healing and the influence of trauma, particularly if it’s never confronted. Even after seeing his father’s ghost, Simba fears looking back (and that’s where the whacking comes in). All of this poignancy is gone with the deletion of Rafiki whopping Simba and the rewriting of Mufasa’s empyrean arrival. Nathanson replaces “You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me...you are more than what you have become,” with “As king, I was most proud of one thing: having you as my son...I never left you, and never will.” It’s sentimental, but not half as compelling, and does little to support the story’s philosophies. Also, it’s not as believable that Simba heard what he needed to restore his focus and valor. With the tough love Rafiki and Mufasa gave him in 1994, you could see why he was sprinting across the jungle to get to Scar. Your parents can be angry with you, but if they’re disappointed in you or you feel you’ve betrayed their legacy somehow, it's harder on the heart.
It’s odd there were rescripts that diverted from the movie’s concepts, because others highlighted them. For example, Guillaume’s Rafiki learns Simba’s alive from a floating feather that Simba laid on. In Favreau’s feature, Simba’s fur lands in water and is ingested by a giraffe. When the giraffe defecates, an insect carries a turd containing the fur until it breaks open. Rafiki spots the hair and voila. A literal circle of life.
Prior Disney reinventions vied too much for realism, and thus, some whimsy and character personality was lost. With The Lion King, it’s fairly the same. All of the animals are very life-like, and therefore, have limited expressions. This weakened intense moments, like when Simba watched his father fall to his demise. “I could barely handle Mufasa’s murder in animated form! I’m going to be a mess seeing it in live-action!,” I joked to a friend before attending the theater. I got through it just fine; I shouldn’t have been able to. When all was said and done, however, I was pleased with what Favreau provided. It could be that he did slightly better than those before him. Maybe the plot is so impassioned, it will strike you, regardless of any visuals or performances. The movie’s aesthetic was wholly pulchritudinous and luminescent, so it might have been that. The jungles, deserts and water-bodies were lush and vivid in color, just as they are in person. Even the desolate hyena lair ‘pops’ on screen. The climactic battle between Scar and his hyenas against Simba, Nala and the lionesses was ravishing. The lighting fire that was the backdrop truly blazed, and the following downpour that quenched it was appreciably somber.
Rafiki’s once funny kung-fu contribution to the fight is toned down to have no comedic value. They just wouldn’t allow him to be great, huh? Timon and Pumbaa’s hula diversion for the hyenas was changed too; probably for the sake of rationality. The duo instead makes a brief reference to Beauty & The Beast’s dinner number “Be Our Guest.” It’s chuckle worthy, but bound to go over youngster’s heads. Also, a meerkat and a warthog nodding to a Disney movie is just as conceivable as them singing and having hula gear on hand, so Nathanson might as well have kept that in. Speaking of ‘practical’ or naturalistic things, it tickled me how Sarabi was the only one to have a stunned reaction to seeing Simba alive. Everyone else went right into conversation, as if he wasn’t ‘back from the dead.’
Musically, “Be Prepared” is the only major deficiency. The other songs were kept intact, but it’s noticeable most of this cast isn’t as vocally adept as the former one. Donald Glover’s flaws as a singer are especially audible during “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” where he’s alongside the consummate likes of Beyoncé (who’s so equipped, that she easily over-sings the tune).
Jon Favreau’s The Lion King was a sufficient rebound from Aladdin, but it also stands on its own. Some of the reworks are agitating, but they don’t ruin the film. Though it’s not equivalent to or surpasses its inspiration, it’s an effective modern companion.