Film Review: “The Lion King” Roars with Shiny New Technology, Meows Through Same Old Story

Film poster: “The Lion King”

The Lion King (Jon Favreau, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

A marvelous demonstration of the wonders of 21st-century computer-generated imagery (or CGI), Disney’s latest poaching from its own story vault is beautiful to behold, the wonders of modern animation delivering what looks like live-action animals singing and capering through the African savannah. Unfortunately, beyond the technological upgrade, little has changed, plot-wise, from the 1994 original, and so we are left with a well-known narrative presented in what amounts to the mere trappings (however sparkling) of something new. As a promo for what the studio can do, visually, it impresses; as a tribute to its storytelling craft, it falls very short. Coming on the heels of the retooled 2019 Aladdin, which was far from perfect but at least offered an attempt at redress for years of cinematic sexism, racism and cultural imperialism, The Lion King goes all in for a traditional story of the triumph of royalty and patriarchy. Does it entertain? Sure… kind of … sort of … but at what cost? That which seemed (more) acceptable in the late 20thcentury feels out of step 25 years later. Hakuna matata, you say? Then you might enjoy this more than I did.

For those who never saw the first film, I offer a brief summary. The powerful lion Mufasa rules over his territory with a genial, if serious, demeanor, keeping a sense of order and place among the animals. Yes, carnivores hunt (though we never see the results), but the “circle of life” (as per the initial song) is maintained, and harmony reigns. When a new son, Simba, is born, Mufasa takes up his training, much to the resentment of his cunning (if less physically strong) brother Scar. Now no longer first in line to the throne, Scar engineers a takeover, sending baby Simba far away, where he is rescued by a comedic duo of a warthog and meerkat, Pumbaa and Timon, who teach him to forget the past and just lie back and enjoy life (serenading him with “Hukana matata,” or “no worries”). Years later, Simba’s erstwhile playmate, and betrothed, Nala, escapes Scar’s nightmarish perversion of the kingdom and stumbles upon the exiled prince, doing her best to convince him to return and overthrow his uncle. Will Simba rise to the occasion and embrace his fate? Have you ever seen a Disney film? If so, then even if you have never seen The Lion King, you know the answer.

Young Simba (JD McCrary) with Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Perhaps it’s just me (though I doubt it), but I am tired of stories of hereditary rule and genetic destiny. They once had their place, but surely the human species has outgrown the appeal. Or not. If only the writers, or director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), had chosen to alter the focus a bit, I might be a bigger fan of their work. After all, as a recent National Geographic article reminded us, in real life it’s the lionesses who run the pride, the males merely transitory sperm donors. Yet here we are, with King Mufasa lording it over not only a subservient crew of females, but over the entire land he can see from the iconic lookout rock that opens and closes the movie.

At least he’s voiced, as he was in 1994, by the great James Earl Jones (Warning Shot), lending him the requisite majesty. Joining Jones in the cast are Chiwetel Ejiofor (Come Sunday) as Scar, JD McCrary (Little) as younger Simba, Donald Glover (Solo: A Star Wars Story) as older Simba, Shahadi Wright Joseph (Us) as younger Nala, Beyoncé as older Nala, Seth Rogen (Long Shot) as Pumbaa and Billy Eichner (truTV’s Billy on the Street) as Timon, among many others. Everyone’s great (though neither Rogen nor Eichner can sing as well as Ernie Sabella or Nathan Lane, who first incarnated the roles), but the entire affair mostly suffers from a lack of imagination (or re-imagination, to be more precise). That, and as magical as aspects of the CGI may be, the photorealism of the movie makes certain elements, including the death of a major character, more disturbing than they were, originally, making me wonder how it might play with kids, the target demographic. Simultaneously exciting and dull, The Lion King is all surface whizz-bang-wow, with no soul.

Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leading a pack of hyenas
©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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