In 1994, Disney released an animated movie with the makings of a Shakespearean drama. It was a movie about succession, monarchies, sex, death, and nihilism — all wrapped around the story of large felines, warthogs, meerkats, and the “Circle of Life.” Called The Lion King, it became one of Disney’s most beloved animated features of all time.
Now, 25 years later, Disney has remade the classic with its sights set on the coup of a century: an attempt to remake the movie and cash in on that nostalgia.
While the new Lion King will most likely make piles of money (thanks to heavy marketing, existing fan nostalgia, and a savvy Beyoncé casting), creating a movie that bests the beloved original is easier said than done. And, according to film critics, Disney failed to do so — The Lion King’s 2019 iteration has received mixed to low marks across the board.
The Lion King remake failed to match up with its predecessor in a lot of ways. That said, there are at least some parts of the remake that surpass the original. Here are nine integral components of The Lion King, and our definitive opinions on which version served them better.
This may be a controversial opinion, but here it goes: Simba, the protagonist, is the least compelling character in The Lion King. For the most part, he just follows what the other animals — Mufasa, Scar, Timon, Pumbaa, Nala, Rafiki — tell him to do. His big personal revelation is to just … follow what his father told him all along.
Perhaps that’s why Matthew Broderick’s Simba (from the 1994 version of the film) isn’t as iconic as Jeremy Irons’s Scar or James Earl Jones’s Mufasa. It may also be why Donald Glover’s Simba in 2019’s edition fails to leave much of an impression. In both versions, the other characters grab the spotlight, particularly Timon and Pumbaa (more on this in a bit), and neither Glover nor Broderick can ever outshine them. Glover has the better-suited voice in “Can You Feel,” sure. But this one’s a push.
Admittedly, some things about Simba’s best pals/adoptive parents Timon and Pumbaa have changed for the worse, between 1994 and 2019. Pumbaa’s fart jokes have been amped up, which has the unfortunate effect of making them less funny. And whereas the pair’s “hakuna matata” philosophy made them seem sort of like charming stoners in the 1994 version, now they’re more like checked-out narcissists, the sort that kind of just land on being libertarians because they think it’s the political philosophy that interferes least with their life. (Remember, Lion King is political, folks.)
However. However. By the time Timon and Pumbaa showed up during Lion King 2019, about halfway through the film, I was so relieved to see them. The pair suddenly inject some levity into a movie that’s gotten very, very dark — Mufasa has just died, and Simba is in despair — and while Seth Rogen’s voice turns out to be an eerily good fit for a warthog, it is Billy Eichner who steals the entire show as Timon. The comedian’s signature yell-shout cadence, honed to such perfection in Difficult People and Billy on the Street, seemingly finds its apex in the body of a weird little meerkat. It’s glorious. Thank you, Billy.
James Earl Jones’s Mufasa and Mufasa’s menacing brother Scar, played by Irons in the original and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the remake, are by far the best characters of both versions of The Lion King.
While Jones’s Mufasa is more or less a reprise, Ejiofor’s Scar is very different from Irons’s. Irons’s Scar possessed a blush of camp and sinuous smoothness to go along with his Machiavellian ways. Ejiofor’s take is more menacing, and his origin story has been tweaked to include that he not only believes himself to be the rightful king but he even once challenged Mufasa for the crown and lost. Ejiofor is angrier, more malevolent, and more terrifying than Irons, whose Scar has more charisma and more megalomania. Different they may be, they have one big thing in common: Both are the best things of their respective movies.
Hands down, the Lion King remake is one of the most beautiful movies to come out in 2019 thus far. It looks like the best nature documentary ever made, portraying every animal with a nearly surreal level of photorealism. That said, that style doesn’t always work in the movie’s favor, since it creates a jarring disconnect in which hyperrealistic lions sing like Beyoncé. The more impressive parts are when the visuals can stand on their own without the Disney songs, like the earth-shaking avalanche of wildebeests in the stampede scene, or how terrifying it is when Shenzi the hyena’s jaws turn from smile into a meat-shearing grin.
“The Circle of Life” opens both movies, with the whole savannah gathering to watch the young Simba be scooped up by Rafiki and crowned (figuratively) the next king. It’s a pretty stirring sequence, with lyrics and music by Tim Rice and Elton John, and the song functions as an overture to the whole operatic journey that is The Lion King.
And as it turns out, Disney decided not to mess with a good thing. The 2019 “Circle of Life” (sung by Lindiwe Mkhize, who performed as Rafiki in the London stage version of The Lion King for 13 years) is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original, though of course now it’s photorealistic. Some of the new movie’s best images (of sunsets and running animals and so on) appear in this sequence, and the song is just as heartfelt as the original.
There was a rumor earlier this year that Disney was cutting “Be Prepared,” Scar’s classic and iconic “villain song,” from the movie to make room for at least one new Beyoncé song. Then, closer to the film’s release, the soundtrack included a song called “Be Prepared (2019),” which did make its way into the film. Unfortunately, it would’ve been better if “Be Prepared (2019)” had been cut.
Granted, Disney and director Jon Favreau wanted to make Scar more menacing, and they did by using Ejiofor’s bass drum voice. It wouldn’t make sense for 2019’s Scar to have a campy solo, so Disney tweaked the song, removing the theatrics and humor and making it sound more like a battle cry. The result is something that’s neither committed to its melodrama nor intimidating enough to be menacing — a floundering, forgettable song.
The original “Be Prepared,” sung-talked by Jeremy Irons and peppered with vocal jolts of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, is the winner here, and it isn’t even close. Irons’s velvet vocals are a character of their own, sharpening into a fang-bearing growl (“You won’t get sniff without me!”) in perfect moments. Irons’s voice is key to making the song a crystallization of Scar’s myopic, grand ambition — there are several references to coups, succession, and injustice.
Scar’s a character who’s obsessed with not only ruling but doing so in the most outsize fashion. And the original “Be Prepared,” complete with marching hyenas that would make dear leaders so very happy, gets at that perfectly.
For practical purposes, let’s remember this is a song about horny lions. Simba and Nala, having gone through lion puberty, are now adult lions. And after having sniffed and pinned each other in the oasis, they burst into this song about the calm evening and the antsy sexual tension that’s emerging between them.
As a song on its own and not attached to hormone-ravaged young adult lions, Donald Glover and Beyoncé’s version soars. But in the context of the movie, the original did the better job of selling it.
The hyperrealistic visuals of the 2019 version make the sequence feel like you’re watching these “real” lions frolic and sing this song to one another. It doesn’t work — we’re never taken out of the faux realism long enough to stomach this lion love song. The animated version succeeds in asking you to suspend reality, which helps us appreciate anthropomorphic lions giving bedroom eyes and serenade each other with a horny melody.
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the new Lion King. But apart from the humor of watching Billy Eichner’s voice come out of Timon’s body, the comedy is largely drawn from the original version’s script. There’s little that might surprise an audience as a new, funny take on an old story. It just feels like sitting through the same old story again, comedic beats and all.
While comedy isn’t a primary aim of The Lion King (in contrast to campier films like The Little Mermaid or even Aladdin), it’s even less prevalent here for most of the main scenes. But whenever Timon and Pumbaa are around, they kick up the laughs a notch. And in the end, both Lion King movies’ comedy more or less stands on an equal level.
As noted in our review, the new Lion King isn’t a complete wash. It’s interesting to see Disney playing with new technologies (even if it seems as if the studio might be trying to make animation so photorealistic that it can just quit hiring live actors altogether at some point in the future). Some of the voice acting is great. And the material is so appealing, it’s basically timeless; you can’t screw it up too badly.
But on the whole, it seems clear that the 1994 version still stands head and shoulders above its younger cousin. It’s inventive and imaginative. The songs were written for that film, and the animations that accompany them are often whimsical and visually inventive in the way that only hand-drawn animation, which lets the imagination of the audience fly free, can do. And that’s especially important in a movie about talking, singing wild animals.
There’s little doubt that many audiences, especially hardcore Lion King fans, will find the new version charming, like a really faithful cover album of a beloved record. But in the end, it’s sad to see Disney shed the hand-drawn glory of its former days. Nobody, after all, really needs a documentary about lions, but with lip-syncing.