So Disney remade one of my favourite films of all time, the film most associated with my youth and easily my most watched Disney flick. I've not been 100% sure about the other CGI/live action remakes of Disney classics but, of the ones I've seen, so far have found them entertaining with some interesting (and largely beneficial) edits. One of the best elements has been seeing modern actors taking up parts I know so well; who doesn't love Ian McKellen in Beauty and the Beast, for example?
Unfortunately, with The Lion King getting that same CGI treatment, I find myself fully torn. The CGI is a triumph, though admittedly still far from the photo realism so many have touted it as. To be clear, the world they created is nearly impossible to fault, though the single piece of genuine footage in the film (the opening sunrise) does still feel somehow different to the rest and there were still a few particle effects (notably dust in the arid scenes) that felt a little disconnected from the scene. The trees, water, storm clouds, wind, and above all else the light, though, were incredible; the initial sunrise over Pride Rock with the lions sleeping felt more like an African morning than any piece of genuine film footage I've seen - the light was just perfect!
On the other hand, the animals themselves are a mixed bag. The zebra-mouse and Zazu are probably the two most realistic animals I've ever seen animated, and I loved Rafiki and Pumba completely. Others, like Timon and most of the hyenas/lions, all felt just anthropomorphised enough to give them a bit more of an emotional connection but also felt a little unbelievable as living creatures. But some, like the giraffe and elephants, felt like video game models (albeit extremely high quality ones), lacking some kind of shading or texture or something that's hard to pinpoint but placed them in the "impressive but unbelievable" category. And then there's Simba, who in both young and old incarnations seemed to lack soul. I don't know quite what it was, whether the voice performances just felt off or maybe they tried to make him the most lion-like lion, but I never bought him as a character with emotions. Nala, Sarabi, Mufasa - even the slightly comically designed Scar - all felt more alive than either of the Simbas did throughout the film. For me, that was a major disappointment, as it made me feel disconnected from his journey completely. I never cared about the Pridelands, I didn't cry (or even tear up) at Mufasa's death, and I found myself hoping that he didn't return after his chance encounter with Nala, instead remaining in the much more fleshed out and real feeling riverine valley with his new friends (who I felt were a little oddly picked but ultimately gave me a beautifully animated elephant shrew and thick-tailed bushbaby, so I'm not complaining at all).
That's a pretty major flaw, one only amplified by my biggest disappointment of the movie: Donald Glover. I love Glover as an actor, I've followed his career since his YouTube days, Community is one of my all-time classics, and I think he's been a positive influence on every film or TV show I've seen him in, but I just didn't enjoy his performance as Simba. When you first hear his voice come out of the lion I felt chills and couldn't help but grin, but once that had worn off I was left wanting much more. He lacked gravitas throughout, making his showdown with Scar feel anticlimactic and even tempering the comedy with his forest pals; most ridiculously of all, though, it meant his duet with Beyonce in Can You Feel The Love Tonight was flat (from both of them) which just feels nuts when you consider how amazing a pair of artists they are.
Which brings me on nicely to the songs. I thought the opening theme was nicely done, and actually quite enjoyed the new addition during Simba's flight back with Nala, though found the credits song from Elton John a little lacklustre (maybe it'll grow on me?). Everything with Timon and Pumba was a genuine joy, from the mildly updated Hakuna Matata to their extended rendition of In The Jungle (easily the best part of the film for me - those parrot beats and bushbaby bounces!), though I felt the inclusion of the "farted" gag could have been handled better whilst still accomplishing the wink-nod to the audience about the changing language criteria for PG films. But they butchered Be Prepared, which has always been my favourite original song, and I didn't feel the sequence of baby animals worked that well compared to the psychedelic original animation for Can't Wait to be King. Still, overall, the songs and music still hold up and I got a lot of enjoyment watching the set pieces in full CGI.
They also gave the animation team a chance to update the animals, which I was extremely thrilled to see they'd decided to make almost entirely realistic (with the allowable exception of Rafiki, who could have been changed to a Chacma baboon but it would be felt odd). I've mentioned how some of the models didn't strike me as "real animals", but I have to applaud the movement; animal gaits, musculature, hair swaying etc. all felt better then anything I've ever seen and as damn-near perfect as I could hope for. Better yet, the decision to make them relevant to the location, from the big mammals right down to the insects (Mopane worms!), gets a standing ovation from me. My biggest disappointment with the original as a kid was that characters like Zazu were effectively fictional whilst others were completely out of place (they could have put a tiger in the opening sequence and it wouldn't have felt like a mistake) so it was great to see the level of effort that they've gone to this time.
I think it's also worth mentioning that, with the exception of Glover, I felt the film was perfectly cast. Most characters remained fairly faithful to their originals, though I appreciated pretty much all of the dialogue changes. Whilst the original cast were all fantastic, it gave me the same thrill to hear John Oliver and Seth Rogen as other redone Disney Classics have pulled off, and Billy Eichner was an inspired choice. Could Chiwetel Ejiofor ever live up to Alan Rickman's Scar? No, and I'm glad he made it his own instead, creating a character that felt even more threatening and was a joy to watch.
As for narrative changes, for the most part I enjoyed them (apart from a few mentioned above) and felt that, like with other remakes, they took the chance to improve some characters. I do feel the hyenas were a little too overhauled, losing a lot of their personality and wasting some excellent comedic talents in the process, but I thought it was great to see Shenzi become a leader (more accurate to actual hyena pack dynamics and a nice foil to Nala) and understand why Ed was all-but cut out. I'm not as sure we needed to say the entire journey of Simba's hair tuft to Rafiki, but it gave us a chance for a dung beetle so I can forgive them that.
However, whilst he broad strokes of the film remained the same and a lot of the changes were beneficial, overall I feel like the drive for realism cost The Lion King its heart. There just isn't as much emotion present in the characters, the loss of the crazier musical sequences created a more believable but also more boring world, and even some of the cinematic changes (camera pans, zooms, framing) I think are genuinely worse. The stampede sequence is a good example: the chameleon is stunning to watch but lacks the level of humour of the original, the camera positioning highlights the world better in the remake but doesn't make Simba feel as isolated so reduces the amount of foreboding you get, and the zoom direction in the closeup of Simba's "Nooooo" feels cringey (particularly when revisited later in slow motion) rather than impactful. In general I think Favreau did a great job but every now and then dropped the ball in comparison to the original.
And that's the big problem here: every part of this film is being compared to a true classic, an almost perfect animated story. There aren't any big glaring issues with the first Lion King, no slight undercurrents of sexism or slightly poorly aged characters (except for possible Ed, but I personally don't think that's really an issue yet), which means there isn't much they can do here. As a result, almost any change will be either neutral or negative, and whilst a few do manage to improve on the original just by revelling in the world, most feel like a step backward. As a technical masterclass, the remake is genuinely stunning, but as a film? It reminds me of the scene where Simba steps in Mufasa's paw prints: there's more than a passing likeness, but it just isn't the same.