Although it can be argued that 1994’s Lion King heavily borrowed elements from Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, the film still managed to create its own identity, bringing with it an infusion of African culture and artistic influence. Unfortunately, Lion King 2019 feels less like an evolution of the beloved series and more of an unnecessary technical showcase of contemporary computer animation.
Unlike the rest of the recent Disney remakes that have come out, Lion King 2019 lacks the presence of any live-action actors, which makes sense considering the context of the film — however, this also results in the photorealistic aesthetic of the movie coming off as feeling pointless and in some instances, just strange. A cast composed solely of animals means that for The Lion King, none of the characters can truly express themselves in the same way that was possible in the original — this is evident throughout the entirety of the movie. Talking, in particular, feels off, with the mouths of the animals not having the proper inflection associated with speech, resulting in the dub feeling separate and disjointed from what is on screen.
The numerous musical sequences within the movie end up suffering the most, as again, sticking with a realistic approach naturally stilts what the animators can get away with, which in this case, results in most sequences feeling hollow and lacking the personality that made the 1994 movie so appealing. Not to say Lion King 2019 is a bad looking movie — in fact, the film is stunning, with every animal on the screen looking fully realized and believable. This adherence to realism ripples into the character designs as well, with most of the animals looking indistinct from each other. The realistic design would be acceptable in a different context, but as The Lion King is a very human story, the style in which it is rendered dehumanizes the characters to the point the movie feels like a jarring mess of talking heads.
Lion King 2019 also fails to really add anything significant to the movie in terms of better realized characters or plot points, sans for a few funny quips from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumba, who bring a new level of flamboyancy and fun to the classic characters (restrained again by its visuals). Despite my issues with Lion King 2019, the movie itself, once separated from its source material, isn’t bad, as it brings with it the same rich story that made the first movie so appealing to both adults and children alike. In terms of the actual acting, Lion King 2019 does offer some hope in that the new cast not only adds a better realized and diverse pool of actors when compared to the original but also rejuvenates and gives all the characters a fresh perspective that doesn’t tread over the original.
John Oliver’s portrayal as Zazu perfectly encapsulates the meek subservient relationship associated with stewards or servants with royalty, while adding a distinctly British flavour that helps further create a sense of division between Zazu and his superiors. Notably, James Earl Jones returns, lending his legendary voice once again in his portrayal of Mufasa, masterfully capturing the same bravado and delivery that made the original character so beloved.
The only area in which Lion King 2019’s visuals bring something meaningful to the movie is during some of the fight scenes or action sequences. These scenes work well as they naturally conform to the raw and animalistic force found in the wild. To a lesser degree, some of the quieter moments in the film also look quite nice, delivering a rather convincing and believable portrayal of what it would look like if animals had a stronger symbiosis with each other, akin to human kinship.
In other words, Lion King 2019 is best when seen but not heard, an unfortunate reality as the story that wants to peak through is just as good as it ever was, marred only by a weak visual identity. Disney had an opportunity to experiment with The Lion King, which in the past has proven successful with ventures such as the musical and the Timon & Pumba spinoff series. Sadly, Lion King 2019 feels like an uninspired copy of the original film that seldom does anything that strengthens itself over the source material, making it only truly appealing to newcomers or diehard Lion King enthusiasts.