The latest in the seemingly endless run of Disney live-action remakes of cartoons is The Lion King, starring Donald Glover as Simba and the one and only Beyoncé as Nala. Directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed the live-action remake of 2016’s The Jungle Book, this Lion King stays extremely faithful to the 1994 animated film. In fact, it’s so similar that one wonders if it was even necessary to make in the first place, since the original had state of the art animation and won two Academy Awards. Whether or not we needed this movie, the reason why it was re-made is clear: nostalgia. Children (and parents) of the ’90s are almost guaranteed to eat it up, even if the critics don’t.
The Lion King was one of Disney’s best, and it’s a little disheartening to think that today’s children might view this reimagining as “real” or “original.” Nevertheless, this 2019 film takes us on the same emotional journey, even though we all know exactly what’s coming. It takes a second to get used to the incredibly realistic-looking animals speaking dialogue, but after that, you’ll probably still tear up when Mufasa dies, leading Simba to run away, and again later when Mufasa appears to him in the clouds, not to mention when the lead character returns home and is reunited with his mother.
The fact that these real-looking but obviously animated lions (this “live action remake” is really more of a computer-animated remake) are able to tug at heartstrings the same way they did decades ago just proves how great the story of The Lion King really is. Whether this film succeeds due to emotions and fond childhood memories or because of its own effective storytelling is debatable. But the casting choices here definitely improve upon some aspects. Billy Eichner’s performance as Timon and Seth Rogen’s take on Pumbaa are hilarious highlights. Their dynamic, dialogue and jokes feel really fresh and fun in this version.
Glover and Beyoncé give strong performances as well. Nala’s character has a little more fierceness (or should I say Sasha Fierceness) than she did in the original. And hearing Beyoncé and Glover sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” together is definitely an epic moment.
JD McCrary’s performance as Young Simba is solid, but doesn’t quite live up to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ original take on the role, especially during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” But in general, the musical portions are good. The new songs — Beyoncé’s “Spirit,” which plays as Simba is finally running back to his home to save it from Scar, and Elton John’s new end credits song, “Never Too Late” — fit in seamlessly. And it’s a nice touch having John in this remake since his music made the first one so iconic. Speaking of the evil Scar, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) has some big paws to fill (Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons made him one of Disney’s most memorable villains) but he pulls it off with powerful voice work that really brings the character to life in a new way.
Bottom line: If you liked the 1994 film, chances are you’ll like this one as well, though perhaps not quite as much. The all star cast and incredible technology that bring the reimagined Lion King to life are worth the price of admission, even if most of it just retreads what’s already been done. After all, allowing a new generation to discover The Lion King and older ones to reminisce about it is what the circle of life is all about, isn’t it?