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Movie Review: The Lion King

Return to Pride Rock with The Lion King. Image used from

Twenty-five years ago, I went to see my very first theatrical film. That movie was The Lion King. That was the film that sent me on my path of loving movies so of course when Disney finally got to The Lion King during their “live action remake phase” I would be excited to go see it especially with Jon Favreau at the helm (who if you remember directed the excellent Jungle Book remake). Was this live action silver anniversary every bit as good as the original or was it just a soulless cash grab?

The story for The Lion King is, unfortunately, very disappointing. You know what the very best of these Disney remakes are? The Jungle Book, this year’s Aladdin and Maleficent. Why? Because the former two took the same stories as the originals but added new plot elements which makes the movies similar yet new and completely different while the latter was a brand new tale altogether. The Lion King, for whatever reason, decides to blow it’s massive budget and talent on telling the same story yet again. The story follows the same beats even going as far as to remake the same shots and cinematography and save for a few lines of dialogue and one or two new scenes it’s pretty much the same movie all over again. Granted, the idea of a younger generation experiencing this movie on the big screen with new film making technology is a logical explanation but it’s still lazy and disappointing to see this. It isn’t bad at all, It’s The Lion King of course the story is still going to be good, of course the emotional moments are still going to hurt, of course the comedy is still going to pull a laugh, but what is the point of going through all this time, work and mass amounts of money just to tell the same story again with little to no new elements or input? Just a few tweaks here and there and it’s a different movie but instead it’s the same movie but with a fresh coat of paint.

The characters for The Lion King are good but only because they’re the same characters as before

I find it difficult to discuss the characters of The Lion King because they’re the same exact characters they were twenty five years ago. They have the same dialogue, the same characteristics and the same development. Granted they’re still great characters there’s no mistaking that, however like the story what is the point of making a new film if you’re just going to do the same thing again. Granted two characters stood out very much, one bad and the other good: Scar and Shenzi. Scar is the same villain once again and to me that’s a colossal problem. One thing I would love to see from these live action remakes is new, original takes on the villains such as seeing Maleficent from a sympathetic angle or Jafar with some backstory and different reasons to conquer the kingdom.  Scar is a character who could have easily been spun as tragic and sympathetic character, give him new motivations to get the throne make him feel guilty about his action heck make him care about Simba and be conflicted with what he has to do. But no. It’s just Scar yet again though this time he comes off as far less intimidating as he’s been given a lankier, weaker build and is clearly not in control of the hyenas. Speaking of which, the only character to actually get any kind of update is Shenzi. Initially a comedic goon she is now a secondary antagonist being the leader of the hyenas. Shenzi is cruel and intimidating and I found myself finding her to be a far more interesting and effective villain then Scar. It’s clear she’s the one in control, she’s the one with all the power and could crush Scar easily and without a second thought. That coupled with a brief line of dialogue about how hyenas and lions have been at war for years could have made for a grand and interesting villain. Instead it’s the same old bit once again.

For a change acting for The Lion King is different and excellent with a few exceptions.

JD McCrary and Donald Glover both do wonderfully as Simba. Both manage to make the performance their own and bring the character to life in their own way, not to mention their musical numbers were very much spot on and done very well.

Beyonce Knowles does very well as Nala. She works well with Glover and manages to blend in perfectly with her role seeming almost unrecognizable.

Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner practically steal the show as Timon and Pumbaa. The two have excellent chemistry together, nail their jokes perfectly and were all around just made for a fun and immensely entertaining time. Every last second with the two is a sheer delight and I could not think of a better duo to have taken these roles.

Florence Kasumba is positively frightening as Shenzi. Every single line she delivers is cold and cruel, she lets her threats roll off her tongue, it is a truly menacing and mesmerizing performance and only makes me wish more that Shenzi was the lead villain.
Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre are both very humorous as Kamari and Azizi ()the updated Banzai and Ed). Though they aren’t around much they still work very well together and do manage to have some truly humorous and memorable moments.

John Oliver is fantastic as Zazu though it wasn’t what I was expecting. I imagined Oliver being as loud and boisterous as Rowan Atkinson was but instead he’s more often subdued though he has his own energetic and loud moments. It was a fun performance and another that was fun in every scene though I still wish he got as excited as Zazu as he would be about a Japanese mascot.

Lastly we come to James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar and unfortunately they are the weak links in the cast. I was beyond excited for Jones to return to his role and while it was a different performance it wasn’t particularly good. It was so odd, he came off as stilted as if he were merely reading his lines off a cue card with as little care or passion as possible. It was jarring and disappointing to hear. Ejiofor reminded me of Idris Elba as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Elba took that performance and made it different, playing Khan as cold, calculating and outwardly violent rather then sarcastic, playful and subtle. It was different and as such he made a familiar villain new again. Ejiofor seems to be mimicking Elba as his performance came off as very similar though without the dread and menace behind each word. He too came off as awkward and stilted. In his case, however, I don’t blame him too much as he was given little to work with. Had Scar been re-imagined Ejiofor could have given a better performance.

The effects for The Lion King are truly beautiful.

I have seen many people harp on the effects for this film. Many, many, many people. Their problem is the film’s approach to making every thing photo realistic and that means making the characters move and act like actual animals rather then cartoons. It’s an interesting approach and one that I personally didn’t mind much but the main problem people take is that the characters don’t emote. There isn’t much in terms of facial expressions and yes at times it can be pretty distracting as the way the characters look never matches up with how they sound. However, this isn’t some massive sin that brings the entire film down and it has become irksome to hear others say that no facial emotions means the effects are bad. Because guess what? They’re still fantastic. The characters look almost perfectly real, some more the others (it was a while before I was convinced Pumbaa wasn’t an actual warthog) and the fit into the real landscapes perfectly. It’s also fascinating to see remade scenes with the new technology and though it is annoying to see the same thing again I couldn’t help but feel drawn in by how well the effects were done. It really is a beautiful film to look at and even though it is just a fresh coat of paint over something familiar it’s still a fine coat of paint.

Lastly the music for The Lion King is done rather well.

The songs from the original are brought back and mostly are remade rather well. They still sound good and thanks to the different performers have a different and almost unique feel to them. The instrumentals are also done beautifully and make for a very pleasing and exciting movie going experience. I wish I could say the same for the this film’s rendition of my favorite song Be Prepared which is very short and sung with little energy or care by Ejiofor. 

Final Thoughts: The Lion King isn’t a perfect film. It’s the same story we’ve already been told and the same characters we already know. Be that as it may it isn’t a bad film. It’s still the good film it was before, the acting is mostly excellent, the effects are gorgeous, the music is done beautifully and it’s all around an entertaining film. It’s a nice way to spend a summer afternoon especially with your family. If you have kids take them to see this so you can experience this film together and make your own memories. And of course be thankful there’s no new The Santa Clause.

Verdict: 3/5

About the Author

Good day to you, my name is Jonathan Gonzalez. For years I've loved movies and have been reviewing them for years, ever since I first saw Roger Ebert on Ebert and Roeper during my freshman year of high school for the first time. I am a graduate of Mercy College with a Bachelor's in Journalism and I have Asperger's Syndrome, something I am truly proud of.

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