Review: ‘The Lion King,’ Disney Aims for Straight Recreation

Review: ‘The Lion King,’ Disney Aims for Straight Recreation

Disney’s new version of The Lion King makes for a good pixel show, but it’s even more intriguing to consider how an opportunity to redefine the story was lost. 

Directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), the 2019 version is faithful to the original film, which floored me 25 years ago with its 2D animated beauty and florid emotional expressions. The story is the same, as mighty king Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and his mate Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) raise the first of their offspring, Simba. Even as Mufasa teaches Simba important life lessons, Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) grumbles and schemes. 

A tragic event sends Simba running into the wilderness, where he encounters warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), and adapts to a new way of life as he grows to adulthood. Meanwhile, under the reign of Scar, the lion pride falters, while Scar’s accomplies, the hyenas, prosper. 

Though the original film places great emphasis on the father/son bond that develops between Mufasa and Simba, in real life, the close bond would more likely develop between mother and son. Females do the hunting for their pride; males do the fighting. 

It would seem easy enough to change this dynamic in the new film adaptation. Imagine how empowering ad satisfying it would be to see Simba bond tightly with Sarabi! Or what if — gasp! — Simba was female!! And then Sarabi taught her how to fight and hunt for food, until her evil, dissatisfied aunt, who was banished from the pride for some reason, had stalked on the outskirts of camp and then entrapped young Simba…

Well, forget it. Disney has, at times, explored alternate renderings in their live-action versions of animated classics, but not The Lion King. Evidently, it’s something the studio considers untouchable. 

Instead, the new version introduces yet another genre into its mix of adventure, action, comedy, musical, and romance: documentary. Yes, when photo-realistic animals talk and/or sing, The Lion King feels weirdly like a talking documentary, a line that was broached in the recent Disneynature doc Penguins (2019), as narrator Ed Helms took on the persona of Steve the Penguin for a brief time. 

It’s weird and a little unsettling, this wild genre mash-up, but it works alright in The Lion King. which is, ultimately, just an entirely different beast than the original. My preference remains the animated film, a classic; the remake is a copy that fades in power as it plays. 

The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.