‘The Lion King’ Theatrical Review
Was The Lion King Worth Remaking?
Recently I’ve been learning how to become a better movie critic. I’ve read reviews by older and newer critics, and I’ve read books about analyzing movies and writing reviews. One of my favorite books on those subjects is Ann Hornaday’s Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies.
I’ve cracked her book many times when I struggle with a film. I knew I would need it when reviewing the remake of The Lion King. While looking for a nugget of wisdom from Hornaday, I rediscovered a sentence in the introduction. In it, Hornaday recounts advice that David Friedman of the Philadelphia Daily News gave her: “Before you write any review, ask yourself three questions: ‘What was the artist trying to achieve?’ ‘Did they achieve it?’ And ‘Was it worth doing?’”’
While I watched Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, these questions bounced around my brain. The answer to the first is that Favreau was trying to remake 1994’s The Lion King to honor the legacy of the original. He also wanted to further develop new technology he used in The Jungle Book. And he tried to make the film longer with improvisational jokes and dialogue scenes that fleshed out character motivations.
Did he achieve what he tried to do? Yes, to an extent. He recreated the most iconic shots from the original, and what he was able to do with technology is groundbreaking. But the added bits and scenes are not successful. The original jokes and actor’s performances were funnier, and the changes slow his version’s momentum.
As for the most important question, “Was it worth doing?” I unequivocally answer “no.” The Lion King is the most unnecessary movie I’ve ever seen. It is not a shot for shot remake of the original. But it’s clear that Favreau reveres the 1994 film too much because he steals most of the shot compositions from it. He also makes sure the iconic songs are the same because he knows they are still sung in minivans across the country. Had he not stayed true to the original tunes, audiences would be after him like a pack of ravenous hyenas. Favreau fails, though, as a voice actor-director and changes the mood of the scenes with noticeable twists to the dialogue.
The Problem with Disney Remakes
The problem from the beginning with the Disney remake brand is that the producers have to acknowledge how past writers, animators, and directors failed. Favreau admits with this film that the cast and crew of the original never failed. To Favreau, 1994’s The Lion King is a perfect movie, but he also has a job to do, and it’s not to make a shot for shot remake. The Disney remakes must be immediately recognizable to audiences, but there also must be slight changes so that the director and screenwriter can claim that it’s new.
One way that former Disney remake directors got away with this was by changing the tone of a character’s dialogue. For example, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar doesn’t have the same sarcastic wit that Jeremy Irons had. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa don’t steal scenes because you get the sense they’re trying too hard to make audiences laugh. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella made me laugh without effort in 1994. “Hakuna Matata” means “No worries,” and Lane and Sabella understood that carefree attitude better than the new duo. When an actor is desperately heard searching for the joke, there is nothing carefree about the performance.
The new film’s mood also lacks the energy of the original in keys scenes such as the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence. By creating a photo-realistic film, Favreau is not able to do anything stylish with color or production design. Instead of seeing Simba, Nala, and Zazu weaving in and out of colorful animals and backgrounds in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” we see the characters running through a bland, photo-realistic group of animals.
These color choices were necessary in 1994. Simba has unrealistic expectations of what his kingdom would look like when he’s king, so he imagines a dreamlike reality. Then he and Nala stumble upon the elephant graveyard, which is symbolic of his future kingdom if he remains arrogant. In the new film, none of that is communicated because we go from one photo-realistic location to the next, and the only difference is that one is darker. These darker scenes are also not as effective because Favreau doesn’t balance comedy with drama as much as the original directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff did. Funny scenes are funny, and dramatic scenes are dramatic. There is no in-between in Favreau’s version of The Lion King. That in-between is what made the original The Lion King a classic beloved by adults and children.
I didn’t hate this movie because so much of it is well produced. I acknowledge that the effects are incredible, the music is still as rousing as it was 25 years ago, and the shot composition is creative. But beyond its CGI makeover, nothing new in this remake is exciting. The 1994 original is still king.
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