“The Lion King” (2019): fun, pretty…but why?

“Are you gonna stop me?”

Story: Seen Kimba the White Lion? That.

Genre I’d put it in: Live Action Unnecessary But Gorgeous Disney Remakes

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the traditionally animated The Lion King.

Gotta say: I love The Lion King. It’s a great movie, the animation is top-notch for its time, and while there’s a few iffy bits here and there (“Hakuna Matata” as ignorance is bliss, questionable hyena symbolism) all in all it’s aged well for a film from 1994.  Oh wait. This new “live action” (aka “photorealistic CGI”) version? Yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s got great voice actors. It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is just, fine.

Why am I less than dazzled? Well, because I couldn’t help but wonder why this was made at all. Yeah yeah, cashgrab, updating troubling bits, yada yada. I was hoping for more though. Well, I was hoping for at least the lion’s share (heh) of similarities to the ’94 film. But as the epic first notes of “Circle of Life” echoed through the theater, I didn’t get the glorious chills I still get when the original explodes onto the screen. The pomp and circumstance is lacking with this King, even though the effects are breathtaking. And without spectacle, this film feels like a Discovery Channel “if animals could talk” show. One with exceptionally exquisite production values, but still.

So let’s talk about the “animals”. There’s an amazing attention to detail here, and I absolutely loved that Disney nailed individual animal behaviors, from gazelles prancing to Simba’s ears flattening as Mufasa chastises the young cub. In the real IMAX screening, I swear I could count the individual hairs on Simba’s head, and the pores on Rafiki’s weathered skin. Sure there were the Uncanny Valley bits, when the animals looked a bit too anthropomorphic, but they were few, far between, and mostly when the animals “spoke.” Otherwise? Whoa.

The voice actors are amazing too; JD McCrary is suitably adorable as young Simba, with Donald Glover ably taking over as the grown future king. Of course James Earl Jones is amazing as he returns to voice Mufasa, and blends well with Alfre Woodard’s Queen Sarabi. And while nobody could outdo Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane as Pumbaa and Timon? Seth Rogen and Bily Eichner have a gleeful buddy vibe that’s easy to get sucked into. Beyoncé (as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) sticks out like a gorgeous thumb with That Voice, but even she dug into her role with such gusto that after a while I stopped thinking “OMGOMGBEYYYY” and started rooting for Nala.

There’s lots of classic shots still here for fans of the original, but also because they’re absolutely brilliant shots. But there are new bits, as well as tweaks to original scenes. Well, how else was Disney gonna stretch it’s 88 minute original run time to 118? Padding, my dears. Padding. Most of which will sail over the heads of the casual fan; a change in how Rafiki finds out that Simba is alive stretches things out, as do scenes leaving and returning to the Pridelands. The CGI is so glorious you may notice the stretching, but you won’t mind. Y’know, unless you’ve gotta go. And honey, you shoulda went before the movie started.

The themes of conservation, family, tradition and loyalty are here, perhaps with a firmer look at over-hunting and abuse of the land. I dig the addition of that particular granola; give the kiddos a look at what happens when things go too far, then chat with them after. Educa-ment! That’s echoed in the “reworking” of several songs to echo the character’s places in the world and connections to each other. I for one like the new “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. It’s less intimate, more plafully adoring, and it fits well with Simba and Nala’s more fleshed-out characters.

All in all, while there’s padding here, it came with Beyoncé, so I’m not that mad. I am, however, unimpressed with the lackluster emotional pull of this remake. The original was lightning in a bottle, something that could never be duplicated, and as hard as the film tries, this King only solidifies that idea. So perhaps someone will take the sound tracks from ’94 and plop ’em into ’19? Nah, it’ll never work. Or could it…

Grade: C+

#Protip: Hitting the multiplex? See this one in IMAX. You’ll want to sink deep into the visuals.

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