This review discusses the new 2019 version of the Lion King, as well as all other previously released material. There will be no further spoiler warnings, as we are dealing with commonly known plot points.
The Lion King is a fascinating franchise. For one, it has been shrouded in controversy, as it appears to have heavily borrowed from the 1960’s Japanese anime series Kimba, the White Lion. Yet, The Lion King was so popular it has grown tremendously over the years into a franchise with multiple television series and films rounding out a compelling universe of its own.
In 1998, Disney released The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride. The film focused on Simba’s daughter and heavily derived its storyline from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This further lent itself to Disney’s claim that the original The Lion King, was an homage to Hamlet. The film was received well, but always left audience’s heads scratching as to where the main antagonists of the film came from, as they were miraculously absent from the first film, but supposedly tied back into it. The new 2019 film had an opportunity here to fix that mistake with its reboot, but completely missed out on it.
For some reason, the franchise never moved past the events of the second film. The first television series, The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa aired from 1995 until 1999 and focused on the wacky adventures of the two titular characters from the films with no real bearing on the story of the main films. Eventually, The Lion King 1 1⁄2 was released in 2004, detailing the story of Timon & Pumbaa before and during the original film, but not venturing into the second.
Interestingly, the new 3D animated (as opposed to the 2D animated) The Lion King deviates not only from the original 1994 film, but also from other material in the franchise. For example, the Lion Guard: Return of the Roar (2015) (which served to launch the 2016 TV series by the same name) explained that Scar had originally challenged Mufasa’s claim to the throne, when they both were still young. His hunger for power came from the gift of the ‘roar’, which was bestowed upon him as the leader of the Lion Guard. He abused his power in an attempt to usurp Mufasa and lost the ability in the process. Mufasa spared him, leading up to the events of the first film.
Now in the 2019 version, Scar is revealed to also have challenged Mufasa in the past. However, here his motivation seems to have been Sarabi, Mufasa’s wife and Simba’s mother. He was jealous of his stronger brother, who was not only King but also got the girl he fancied. It is a more straightforward motivation that embellishes the original, but lacks the depth of the Lion Guard’s explanation. On the other hand, an argument can still be made that the details of the Lion Guard were simply not uttered in the new film to not confuse the general audience needlessly.
Some other nice expansions include additional supporting characters in Timon & Pumbaa’s jungle and some extra time with Nala and Simba in their time apart during Scar’s rule. At the same time, certain additions felt unnecessary and out of place. The attempt at a more realistic way for Rafiki to uncover Simba’s true fate disrupted the fast pacing of the film and felt completely redundant.
The photo-realism grounded the film more than its predecessor and gave the story a more natural feeling, but also created many limitations for the film. For example the very extravagant Be Prepared was scrapped in favour of a more mellow 30 second version that felt appropriate, but jarring because of our fond memory of the original song.
The film also went out if its way to tell us that Simba lacked the skills and instincts of a true lion, being raised by non-hunters. This led to Nala and his friends having to save him in the final confrontation at Pride Rock. This was nicely done and Simba is still shown to be a fierce lion. In fact, he defeats Scar on his own in a very similar fashion as in the original. However, he does not utilise Nala’s pin manoeuvre, as he did in the original, but just pushes Scar, until he falls down the cliff on his own. This felt far less satisfying than the original. In the original it was implied that he didn’t know how to fight and he remembered the technique that Nala used on him when they were kids to both learn from his past and channel his inner lion. It was a moment that showed his growth as a character and is sorely missed in this new version.
Several other scenes were also altered or cut. For example, Timon, Pumbaa and Nala do not meet Rafiki. Nala runs off back to Pride Rock on her own and Simba catches up to her. The new scene is very nice and underpinned by Beyoncé’s new Spirit track. However, the track, while very nice, felt a bit out of place and even more so, as it replaced the classic galloping scene through the desert from the original, which had some of Hans Zimmer’s strongest score in the background. That particular soundtrack is used at a different point in the film, but also feels out of place there, as we already associate it with a different scene in the original.
There are also some subtle social justice undertones in the film, but for the most part, they are executed tastefully. For example, Simba launches into I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, after he is confronted with being forced to marry Nala. He is outraged and declares that when he grows up he will change the traditions of the monarchy and choose what he wants to do when, where and whom to marry on his own, not because some system dictates it to him.
The performance of all the actors was excellent and despite the fact that the realistic animal faces did not allow for a lot of expressions, one could feel the emotions through the spot-on voice over performances of the actors. This was underpinned by a true-to-the-original soundtrack, which was adapted only slightly in certain places and feels more like an homage than an attempt to replace the original.
Overall, the 2019 version of The Lion King is breathtaking to look at and delivers something fresh, while maintaining the roots of the original. However, it missed on the opportunity to truly do something new with the film. The small changes show a fear of innovating on a well-established classic, but also the missed opportunities and potential for deepening the story of a film that was originally meant for children and could have easily been expanded for an adult audience, which is clearly the intended audience, as admitted in the film by Timon and Pumbaa.