I try to avoid spoilers as best as I can- but be aware that I reference well known plot points from the 1994 animated version.
The Summer of Disney has its final release day today, July 19, with The Lion King premiering in theaters. Since I’m a total obsessive Disney super fan, and especially for Lion King, I obviously found a showing last night and am here to tell you all about it. Well, as much as I can without spoilers.
The verdict: I LOVED IT! It’s spectacular. An epic. Glorious. Now, let’s start from the beginning.
I had my expectations firmly in check (see my post on how to Be Prepared for this film here!). We arrived at the theater early to have time to peruse the menu and have a potty break (yeah, we didn’t have any kids with us. But I was not going to miss a single moment of this movie, so we had to enforce the kid rules on ourselves). I had to ask if they had any leftover posters from the fan event, which they did not, because the fan event was moved to a different Regal theater. That’s when we found out our standard showtime had been switched to a 3D showing without them telling us. Being old and set in my ways, I was super bummed. I’d fully prepared to see this movie the normal way, and I was not prepared for this last minute change. But after much deliberation, we chose to stay and try the 3D. Ironically, the only other 3D film I’ve seen was the theatrical re-release of the original Lion King years ago. Long story short, this review is of the 3D version of the film.
How does it compare to the 1994 original?
The “Circle of Life” opening sequence of course made me cry, and is essentially a scene by scene transition from classic animation to lifelike, photorealistic CGI. But this is the only scene by scene remake aspect of the film, and it seemed to be more for nostalgia than lack of creativity. There are some serious nods to super nerds like me who can find such subtle easter eggs as a nod to the CGI scene in the 1994 one, which was a change in focus from the ants to the zebras. It was groundbreaking technology in 1994, and the filmmakers choosing to include it in 2019 warmed my heart.
As someone who has seen the 1994 classic so many times I can basically watch it in my head whenever I choose, I can confidently say this is not a scene by scene update. There are lots of script changes, lots of different angles and shots. The story is the same, of course, as it should be. For my husband, who has seen the animated film a number of times but not as many as me (I’m probably a world record holder, to be honest), he felt like it was really similar cinematically. (He’s also clearly wrong, because aside from the opening sequence this story is told in a different way. But whatever. He can have his opinion. I guess.)
The quality of the film is spectacular. The CGI is so lifelike that I desperately want to bury my face in Mufasa’s mane, and I want a pet lion (you know, if it weren’t morally irresponsible and unsafe, etc.). The background is so lifelike, and the flora and fauna are incredibly detailed. My favorite scene from 25 years ago is Simba and Mufasa under the stars, as Mufasa explains about the great kings of the past. This scene was made for CGI. With the glorious night sky, I felt like I could reach out and touch Mufasa’s mane, ruffle Simba’s cub fur, and felt like I was there. It was magical.
The adaptation from animation to CGI is a big jump, and this film feels like its live-action. The scene I was most curious about transitioning was “I just can’t wait to be king,” as it has a separate (and very 90s) tone differing from the rest of the film. Instead of going goofy with it like 1994 did, this 2019 version does something incredibly clever: they use the original choreography, but have the animals at the watering hole doing natural behaviors. Finding ways these animals move normally and incorporating it with the former choreography floored me; its such a creative and unique way to make the move more ‘realistic’ while honoring the original. It’s the perfect balance.
A complaint a lot of early reviewers had about the CGI was the lack of emotion on the lion’s faces. I didn’t find them hard to read at all. Their eyes are incredibly expressive, and I thought they did a wonderful job of anthropomorphizing the animals without overdoing it and having it look cartoony or unrealistic. My husband made a wonderful point about this by guessing that whomever has trouble reading the faces is not around animals regularly. We have three large dogs and can read their emotions, and reading the lions’ was no different. Their facial expressions were natural, made sense, and looked phenomenal.
Script & Dialogue
As far as script changes, the overall tone of the dialogue is much more casual than in the original. Simba interrupts Mufasa as he explains things (the most realistic parenting moments I’ve seen on film, actually). All of the hyena’s jokes are different, as are most of Zazu’s. Timon and Pumbaa find their own groove, and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa is especially hilarious. There are moments when the film pokes fun at itself, but overall tackles the story with elegance and grace. One big shift I noticed is that almost all of the comedic relief comes from side characters; a lot of the humorous moments with the lions is absent. The lions themselves are treated much more seriously.
New Character Development
There are very distinct moments in the animated version that underline how evil Scar is with imagery reminiscent of WWII Germany. This film takes a different approach, with Pride Rock being shown as more prison-like during Scar’s reign.
Scar himself is very well developed. He honestly comes across as a complete sociopath, as opposed to the seemingly simply evil character from 1994. We get a hint of a backstory as to how he got the scar, which we see play out in his revenge against Mufasa. Scar is terrifying here, with an omnipresent maliciousness.
The other character that seemed the most changed to me was Simba. I feel like he is less likeable. This film shows him making the mistakes, but not his stepping up and taking accountability for them by trying to protect others, trying to be brave. The animated one shows him stepping in front of Nala in the elephant graveyard, helping her run away, and then facing the the hyenas head on while defending Zazu. The 2019 version omits much, if not all, of these brave moments. After Mufasa’s murer, when he runs away, it’s a cowards way out. When he runs away in 1994, it was what he thought was right. That’s a big distinction and makes Simba less relatable and less likeable. He has to be flawed but not fatally for the audience to want him to succeed.
Other characters are given deeper stories, such as Shenzi the hyena. Keegan Michael Key is fairly funny, in a grown up sort of way, though Bonzai and Ed are not in this version. Keys plays Kamari and Eric Andre plays Azizi. They’re a duo, but their humor may be above the heads of younger audience members. They’re funny, but Timon and Pumbaa will go over better with younger audiences. Seth Rogen especially knocked it out of the park as Pumbaa.
The musical numbers are the most similar, as the lyrics are mostly unchanged. Be Prepared had the most drastic changes, but stays true to the heart of the original. I was hoping against hope that they’d include my favorite number from Broadway’s musical version of The Lion King, called “He Lives in You,” but instead they gave Beyonce a song. Titled “Spririt,” it’s beautiful but feels a little out of place in where they placed it within the film. But I’m also biased towards the Broadway song I wanted included. Beyonce did a truly wonderful job as Nala, and I had been worried because Nala is one of my favorite characters and Beyonce is known as a singer. But she blew me away, and gave Nala a strong and melodic voice that stood up for what she thought was right.
The 3D Effect
As far as the 3D aspect, it was actually really cool! If you have the opportunity to see it in 3D, I recommend it. It’s often subtle, and so well done that multiple times I wondered if that little bug was part of the movie or real (it was always part of the movie!). It’s really well done and enhanced the movie without being distracting. And the 3D trailer for Frozen II made me ready for November to be here already!
I do agree with other reviewers that this film is definitely created for older audiences. The violent scenes felt longer and scarier than the animated ones, likely because the animals are so very lifelike. There are a few moments with tinges of blood in their fur, which is jarring. The final battle is especially brutal and intense. Additionally, this movie feels more serious than its animated counterpart, and there are fewer humorous moments to add levity. It’s great for older kids, depending on your kid, and adults.