There have been a lot of movies where I feel it’s supremely unnecessary to give the synopsis of a movie, like when I did an updated review to the first Hunger Games book. And I feel like this one especially, I really don’t need to do. But basically, it’s the Pride Lands with real, fluffy animals, with leader of the entire region, lion Mufasa, trying to teach his young son Simba about how ruling the land does not mean you should think of it as being able to do whatever you want, but being a protector, and how one day Mufasa’s days as king will set like the sun, and it will then rise welcoming him as the new leader. It’s not as if Simba doesn’t want to be king; the famously jolly “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” song is in here. But Mufasa’s relative Scar, envious of the power and believing as a lion he should be free to terrorize and hunt till his heart’s content (and not ever having the ability to since Simba is due to be the replacement), decides one day, “Screw it. Time to achieve power.”
Weird fact about me: There’s this animated movie from 2006 called Barnyard, and it’s pretty popular because of two things; the fact the male cows have udders, and the TV show it released a few years later, called Back at the Barnyard. And a very fair amount of people disliked that movie for not just its false biology, but for how it has a story very similar to The Lion King. And because of that, there are fibers in me that want to dislike Barnyard, but I don’t. I admit, I liked it a lot better as a teenager than I do now. My original score was an A-, which then got boosted to an A+ but now I feel I should switch it back. Still, an A- is a big grade, especially since I gave just a B- to the original Lion King picture. So why do I like it more than The Lion King story? Maybe I like the music a bit more; that movie was actually what got me into country music. And maybe another thing was how in The Lion King, Simba only believes his father’s death was his fault, but in Barnyard, for Otis the Cow, it actually was his fault that his stepfather was brutalized by coyotes to the point of death. Maybe those are the two defining factors. Still, even if this updated Lion King was going to go the same path, I wanted to see how passionately and dramatically they could play the story in live-action. And at first it seemed I had a reasonably good watch on my hands. Why? J D McCreary’s performance as the young Simba. He is so much better than the original Simba. McCreary’s acting and singing are both perfect for the role, lovable, energetic and trusting. Also, by having a cast with more people of colour than the original, as well as music and settings clearly inspired from the natural beauty of the wilderness untouched by humans, I felt like I was on a safari. It’s definitely better animated than the Barnyard movie.
One thing that gave me slight hesitation of if my optimism would keep up for the entire picture was Zazu’s updated sprite. I didn’t see it prior to seeing the movie because of avoiding trailers, and I continued till I saw him in the final picture. I mean, seriously. There are blue jays here in Canada. Why couldn’t Zazu have actually looked a thing like his original and colourful form? John Oliver was a fine choice for the role, but the character he played looked ashen and lifeless, kind of like how the lions aren’t able to express emotions the same freeing way as they were in 2D animation. It’s sad that despite J D McCreary’s acting as he’s heartbroken for his father’s death, we’re scratching our heads a lot more than we’re wiping away our tears, wondering if there’s anything that’s going to truly blow our minds. I thought a live action Lion King would be amazing...until it started playing and played completely familiarly.
I suppose you all probably remember the traveling of some of Simba’s fur to Rafiki. Well, there’s a segment showing that fur’s journey, and I have to say...did the scene really have to include a dungbeetle collecting from a giraffe? The film tries to soothe this idea with mystical music, and it doesn’t work. And there’s a scene where Pumbaa stands up for himself, saying that you can judge him for what he looks like but he isn’t afraid of bullies, which is never a bad message. It’s just a little too typical and there wasn’t enough throughout the movie to make us feel he needed to prove himself, causing it to sound forced. It turned the scene into an eye-roller.
In the end, here’s the thing: It really wasn’t that long ago when the original Lion King was released, that being a quarter century or not. Considering what has happened since its release, with or without this movie I’m sure the 1994 movie will remain a classic among its many fans for decades. But that does not mean redoing the working formula piece by piece is surefire success. In fact, it ends up displaying an utter lack of imagination, of confidence. It made this year’s earlier adaptation of Aladdin look like that film came straight from the oven.
This live-action animated remake of the classic-to-the-point-of-legendary Disney feature does have an identity of its own, because of its gorgeous African settings and a majority-POC voice cast. In fact, the best part is at the beginning, when it fools us for five seconds into thinking the legendary Circle of Life theme is actually not there. Then it goes up. What the movie does not have is imagination of its own, and that was the sad checkmate I had to accept. Because despite me being in the minority and not finding the original Lion King to be as special as everyone else made it out to be, the teaser trailer with the original opening of the Circle of Life song and the adorable Simba cub turned it into a mandatory viewing. Not to mention I really loved Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Yet despite all that, sometimes there are movies that are just not brave to go far enough.