The Lion King review: Remake might be too realistic for its own good
Jon Favreau's 2019 reboot of the classic movie offers incredibly lifelike characters, but at what cost?
Abrar Al-HeetiVideo producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
ExpertiseAbrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.Credentials
Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
The opening of
live-action remake of The Lion King had me scratching my head. "Are those real animals?" From roaming giraffes to grazing rhinos, the animals seem so lifelike. And the first glimpse of Mufasa standing watch over his kingdom, mane blowing in the wind, had me squinting to make sure he wasn't an actual lion.
Disney's reboot of the 1994 animated classic gets released on Digital HD on Friday. The release date for DVD, Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray will follow on Oct. 22.
"Live action" isn't quite the right term, as the characters in the reboot entirely are computer-generated. But they seem so realistic it's hard to tell the difference. Even the lush green backdrops, with their flowing streams, swaying trees and gushing waterfalls, look like scenes from a nature documentary.
Watch this: The Lion King: Before they remade the movie, they made a game
That realism -- namely, The Lion King's use of CGI -- is what brings the film so beautifully and powerfully to life. The movie tells the story of Simba, a lion who looks forward to one day being king. But his uncle Scar also has his eyes on the throne, and his plot to overthrow Simba and his father, Mufasa, ultimately leads Simba on a journey to search for his destiny and purpose.
The live-action remake is true to the plot and music that made the animated film so memorable. In fact, it follows the original plot more closely than other reboots of Disney classics, like 2017's Beauty and the Beast and 2019's Aladdin.
But what CGI offers in the way of lifelike characters, it lacks in emotional impact.
How do you show sadness or excitement in an animal that's designed to look, for want of a better term, real? There are moments when characters' voices convey pain, joy or fear, but that's rarely reflected in the animals' facial expressions. Still, there are times when Simba's sadness or Scar's wrath, for example, is effectively conveyed through their eyes.
Comedy also takes a hit in the remake, directed by Jon Favreau. While the humor in the animated film felt timeless (on rewatching it, I find myself laughing at the same jokes today as 20 years ago), the jokes in this release feel forced. Some moments, like when the hyenas bicker about personal space, are clearly designed to elicit laughs, but at my showing at least, the audience seemed to force a chuckle out of a sense of obligation.
The characters, for the most part, aren't overshadowed by the film's star-studded cast, which includes Donald Glover (Simba), Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa) and Billy Eichner (Timon). We're still able to see characters like Simba as separate from the actors who voice them, and it's thankfully just as easy to become absorbed in the playful antics of Timon and Pumbaa (with the added touch of Rogen's signature laugh, of course). James Earl Jones, who lends his voice to Mufasa once again, is as commanding and powerful as in the original film, maintaining our understanding and admiration for his character.
That's not quite the case with Zazu, who's voiced by John Oliver. While Oliver adds a fun touch to the character, his voice is so distinctly John Oliver that I couldn't help but feel like I was watching an episode of Last Week Tonight every time he spoke. It was quite distracting.
On the other hand, there's Beyoncé. Despite the singer's immense star power, her voicing of Nala doesn't overshadow the character, but lends an air of passion and independence that could only be delivered by Queen Bey. Not surprisingly, Beyoncé truly shines in her singing. I got chills when I heard her melodic voice in the classic Can You Feel the Love Tonight and in Spirit, a new track in the film.
Thankfully, The Lion King stays true to the passion and emotion of the music in the original. Every song in the 2019 remake, both lyrical and instrumental, effectively sets the tone throughout the film. Hakuna Matata and I Just Can't Wait to Be King are just as lively and upbeat as their animated counterparts, and it's hard not to get choked up during Circle of Life, especially as the nostalgia kicks in.
Ultimately, The Lion King's live-action rendition follows closely in the steps of its predecessor, but there's no need to mess with something so good.