Disney’s photorealistic, computer-animated remake of its 1994 classic The Lion King is (mostly) feeling the love from movie critics.
Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s game-changing CGI blockbuster has courted particular praise for its boundary-pushing visuals, which accompany the film’s classic tale of a young lion prince named Simba (Donald Glover) who exiles himself from his homeland after his nefarious uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murders his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, who returns after voicing Mufasa in the 1994 movie), in a vicious bid for the throne.
“2019’s Lion King is a marvel of photorealism from the first frame, nearly indistinguishable from the real real; it looks like Netflix’s Planet Earth, if gazelles could share watering holes with their natural predators, and zebras semi-regularly broke into song,” writes EW’s Leah Greenblatt, who also notes that the technological advancements leave the film feeling slightly hollow. “If the film feels a little airless for all that open space, maybe it’s because the movie’s CG is so elaborately, meticulously made that it doesn’t leave much room for the spark of spontaneity. The story and the songs, with a few notable if hardly unexpected updates, are fondly faithful to the original; the magic mostly intact. Another reboot was never terribly necessary, maybe — but it’s good, still, to be King.”
Greenblatt’s sentiment of generally enjoying The Lion King despite its “unnecessary” existence is common among early reviews.
“The property serves, in other words, as the ideal Disney template, a cash cow not to be messed with,” Todd McCarthy writes for The Hollywood Reporter. “What this means for the new big-screen take on the story, which is entirely animated but to such a realistic degree that it could practically pass as a live-action film, is that it may be the most conservative, least surprising, least risk-taking film of the current century. Nearly a scene-by-scene remake of the original, albeit a half-hour longer, it serves up the expected goods, which will be duly gobbled up by audiences everywhere like the perfectly prepared corporate meal it is.”
Gizmodo‘s Kristen Lopez feels the film doesn’t add much to Disney’s legacy of beloved narratives, noting that The Lion King “plays it completely safe” in its faithfulness to the first film without much innovation beyond its technical achievements: “Fearful of changing a single hair on Simba’s photorealistic head, director Jon Favreau tells audiences the exact same story they saw in 1994, making the most minor of concessions to avoid receiving Gus van Sant/Psycho-levels of criticism,” she observes. “Despite the rehash feeling, the astounding hyperrealism of the animals and locations, coupled with a comic pair that runs away with the show, helps The Lion King retain some freshness worth experiencing.”
Awards Daily critic Jazz Tangcay agrees.
“The CGI level that Favreau and the Lion King team have created reaches new heights we’ve never seen before,” she writes. “The colors of the African savannah are truly majestic. The meticulous visuals of the animals gathering at Pride Rock to pay homage to the birth of Mufasa’s son are truly captivating as we see the animal kingdom come together to honor the future king. The fine detail of animation, CGI, and the complex technology has raised the bar for movie-going experiences. It feels, and I say this with absolute sincerity, as if we are watching a nature special, the sort that David Attenborough narrates, except there was a soaring Hans Zimmer’s score and all the beautiful creatures can talk. Except this is The Lion King and we can see as Sarabi walks across the screen – every muscle move or the veins on Scar make for the authentic realism.”
The film’s voice also cast includes Beyoncé as Simba’s love interest, Nala, as well as comedian Billy Eichner and actor Seth Rogen as Simba’s beastly companions, Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog), who provide “hilarious” comedic relief (as Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan puts it) via their “brisk vaudevillian double act,” per The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott.
Still, despite flashy acting and dazzling spectacle, Scott sums up the general consensus on Disney’s latest big-screen remake.
“The grandeur and intimacy, the earthy humor and heavenly songs have given it gravity and staying power,” he writes of the 1994 original, which won two Oscars after grossing nearly $1 billion worldwide. “Those are somehow missing here. The songs don’t have the pop or the splendor. The terror and wonder of the intra-pride battles are muted. There is a lot of professionalism but not much heart. It may be that the realism of the animals makes it hard to connect with them as characters, undermining the inspired anthropomorphism that has been the most enduring source of Disney magic.”
The Lion King remake releases theatrically on July 19. Read on for more reviews.
Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly)
“Why presume you can improve on a film that already earned close to a billion dollars at the box office, took home two Oscars, and is still winning over new tiny iPad-conversant consumers of farty warthogs and fast-talking meerkats every day? The short answer might be: technology. 2019’s Lion King is a marvel of photorealism from the first frame, nearly indistinguishable from the real real; it looks like Netflix’s Planet Earth, if gazelles could share watering holes with their natural predators, and zebras semi-regularly broke into song…. If the film feels a little airless for all that open space, maybe it’s because the movie’s CG is so elaborately, meticulously made that it doesn’t leave much room for the spark of spontaneity. The story and the songs, with a few notable if hardly unexpected updates, are fondly faithful to the original; the magic mostly intact. Another reboot was never terribly necessary, maybe — but it’s good, still, to be King.”
Jazz Tangcay (Awards Daily)
“The CGI level that Favreau and the Lion King team have created reaches new heights we’ve never seen before. The colors of the African savannah are truly majestic. The meticulous visuals of the animals gathering at Pride Rock to pay homage to the birth of Mufasa’s son are truly captivating as we see the animal kingdom come together to honor the future king. The fine detail of animation, CGI, and the complex technology has raised the bar for movie-going experiences. It feels, and I say this with absolute sincerity, as if we are watching a nature special, the sort that David Attenborough narrates, except there was a soaring Hans Zimmer’s score and all the beautiful creatures can talk. Except this is The Lion King and we can see as Sarabi walks across the screen – every muscle move or the veins on Scar make for the authentic realism.”
David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“Unfolding like the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake, Jon Favreau’s (almost) photorealistic remake of The Lion King is meant to represent the next step in Disney’s circle of life. Instead, this soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”
Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“In a movie-going environment where originality is shunned and the familiar is embraced like comfort food, this Lion King will rule, just as it always has. The ostensible creative reason for the update is the advance in computer animation yielding imagery so realistic that the result is called ‘virtual cinematography,’ meaning that the animals and dramatic African backdrops indisputably look like the real thing, as if shot on location…. But by and large, very few remakes, other than Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot reproduction of Psycho, have adhered as closely to their original versions as this one does. Everything here is so safe and tame and carefully calculated as to seem pre-digested. There’s nary a surprise in the whole two hours.”
Kristen Lopez (Gizmodo)
“‘Who really cares about the story, when the technology is so utterly astounding?’ appears to be the film’s mentality. As Favreau explained at the recent premiere, nearly every source of cutting edge technology was employed for the film, including virtual reality, and the results are the most photorealistic narrative to ever exist, building and surpassing what Favreau already did with his previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book. Baloo looked real, but Simba looks like he’s ready to pounce off the screen and into the audience. Regardless of the content, The Lion King is the most beautiful movie made in the last 20 years. At times you don’t feel you’re watching a fictional narrative but one of Disney’s many nature documentaries or the BBC series Planet Earth. The characters certainly look like real lions, which is a sight to behold, but has the disadvantage of prohibiting one’s ability to tell the difference between characters; the female lions especially are nearly impossible to tell apart and there are only two of significance.”
Peter Debruge (Variety)
“Overall, the songs pose a unique challenge to Favreau’s approach, since he’s striving for realism — or at least the illusion that we’re watching flesh-and-blood animals — whereas the original belongs to that period of Disney animation when the stories often halted to make room for Broadway-style showtunes. Rather than replicating the Busby Berkeley-style choreography of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,’ the director does a fantastic job of reimagining this sequence, tipping his hat to certain memorable shots without anthropomorphizing the animals too much. Rendering technology has advanced so much in the short time since The Jungle Book (to say nothing of the vastly increased amount of manpower assembled to pull it off) that The Lion King no longer requires audiences to pretend that the CGI looks more believable that it does. With the exception of the strangely out-of-sync mouth movements seen when these digital creatures talk, the animals look utterly convincing, blending characteristics of their various species (the way a cat’s ears hinge backwards when it’s hesitant or scared) with recognizable human expressions (the slightest eye flicker, to reinforce those same feelings).”
Kenneth Turan (The Los Angeles Times)
“A machine purpose-built to maintain the cinematic status quo, this new computer generated Lion King has taken a sure thing and made it surer, making choices like retaining James Earl Jones and adding Beyoncé Knowles-Carter to the voice talent and sticking so closely to the original version it duplicates both specific images and lines of dialogue. But though the new ground it breaks is visual rather than dramatic or emotional, this is a polished, satisfying entertainment that just about dares you to look a gift lion in the mouth…. All this, of course, is familiar to anyone who’s seen either the animated feature or the Broadway musical (or both) and that is exactly the point. By joining familiar material with mind-expanding technology, Lion King knows how to bring you around.”
A.O. Scott (The New York Times)
“There are a great many impressive moments in this film, and a few that might elicit a gasp of amazement or an appreciative burst of laughter from even a jaded viewer. For example: when Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog voiced by Seth Rogen, absent-mindedly scratches his left ear with his hind leg, I confess that I nearly wept. Not because the scene was especially touching or sad, but because of the sheer extravagant craft that had clearly gone into rendering those two seconds of reflexive animal behavior. I was nearly as moved by the efforts of a dung beetle to propel a ball of scat across a patch of desert. The digital artisans responsible for these images didn’t necessarily have to do it all with such fanatical care, and the fact that they did is surely worthy of admiration.”
Alissa Wilkinson (Vox)
“And there’s enough to The Lion King to recommend it as a pleasant summer diversion: The action is legitimately tense, the sunsets are beautiful, and while some of the most prominent voice actors feel like they’re just reading their lines (including, unfortunately, Beyoncé), some of the voice acting — from Rogen, Eichner, and Ejiofor in particular — is great. (Give Timon and Pumbaa a spin-off.) But as an expansion of the 1994 film, The Lion King says and adds little. It’s a half-hour longer than the original, but for no discernible reason. Scar has gone from being creepy to some kind of beta incel. Some of the campiness of the original, particularly from the hyenas, is gone, and even a (very) slightly expanded role for Nala still fails to offer anything interesting. The Lion King has always been a film with quite a lot to say bubbling below its surface. But 2019’s telling adds bloat, and nothing more.”
Joshua Rivera (GQ)
“We might be a little too good at computers, though. Because, if The Lion King is any indication, you can have sumptuous, state-of-the-art technology capable of delivering breathtaking visuals, and still fundamentally fail at art. And while The Lion King is gorgeous, it is also artless, a slavish reproduction that only breaks from its predecessor to yawn and stretch its legs, and not to really show us anything new.”