2019’s Lion King starts as it means to go on – familiarly. Jon Favreau’s photorealistic redo of Disney’s most lovable classic hews very close to the 1994 original, and nowhere is this more clear than in the opening moments. Recreating the presentation of Simba (JD McCrary as a child, Donald Glover as an adult) at Pride Rock almost shot for shot, with the ever-so-comforting ‘Circle of Life’ backing the action, it lets you know that Favreau won’t be reinventing the beloved story. Yet, while this can be reassuring – the best emotional beats of the original remain mostly intact – it also makes this new version rather ‘less of the same’ in comparison to the cartoon, losing a lot of the vibrancy that has kept it so timelessly brilliant.
While some key scenes are just as effective as the last time out – Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones, the only actor from the original to reprise their role) fateful encounter with the wildebeest stampede is as harrowing as ever – the musical numbers suffer from the move to ‘live action’. Gone are the gaudy colours and madcap finale from ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, the impossible topography and goosestep march of ‘Be Prepared’, and the hilarious weeping of Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen) at the end of ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’.
Though the film is an undeniable technical marvel, with animals and environments indistinguishable from those captured in documentaries like Planet Earth, magic is lost through the inability to go too far out of the bounds of reality. It also makes the lions harder to tell apart, Scar’s distinctively villainous design a particular casualty, although Chiwetel Ejiofor certainly brings the requisite menace to his voice performance. Glover’s innate likability keeps his take on Simba adorable as he grows from cub to king, but Beyonce doesn’t make a huge impression as Nala, given surprisingly little to do.
Where Jeff Nathanson’s script excels is in its comic relief, breaking away from the original in a positive way as it cannily changes up the jokes to best suit the comic sensibilities of its new cast. Rogen and Eichner’s Pumbaa and Timon are looser and more improvisational, and John Oliver’s new, less haughty take on the ever-flustered Zazu gets big laughs. As a standalone family film, 2019’s Lion King is perfectly entertaining and fun, with a few emotional wallops, but it remains hard to whole-heartedly recommend when the superior version has been available for 25 years.