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Family Movie Review: The Lion King (PG)

The animation style of ‘The Lion King’ may be updated, but it is a mostly unnecessary shot-for-shot recreation.

Kernel Rating: 2.5 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG       Length: 118 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 8+. This live-action-animation version of Disney’s classic ‘The Lion King’ contains the exact same plot elements as the original, but the animals are now quite life-like, so the violence—a father’s death, animal carcasses, battle sequences, a destructive fire—might seem more “real” and therefore scary to young viewers. There is the slight romantic subplot between Simba and Nala, who fall in love as adults; the villain Scar attempts to pressure his sister-in-law into marriage; and some talk about bullying, flatulence jokes, and insults.

By Roxana Hadadi

As Disney continues its domination of the box office, one of its most anticipated offerings of the year is the live-action-animation remake of “The Lion King,” one of their biggest hits from the 1990s. While the level of detail here in the renderings of lions, hippos, zebras, and other animals is astonishingly impressive, the fact that “The Lion King” now looks like a nature documentary diminishes the power of its storytelling.

TheLionKing1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewThe Disney remakes that have been most rewarding from a narrative perspective are those that take risks and deviate from their source material, like “Cinderella” and “Pete’s Dragon.” “The Lion King,” now this year’s third live-action remake after the disappointing “Dumbo” and the surprisingly successful “Aladdin,” is more in line with “Aladdin” in terms of not swaying much—barely at all, actually—from its source material. There is comfort to watching a familiar story, and it’s reassuring that the story beats of “The Lion King,” influenced so much by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” are still effective overall.

But what is diminished by making the lions look like lions and the warthogs look like warthogs and the hyenas look like hyenas is the expressiveness of these characters. With this natural documentary style, there is no snarl to Scar, no impish glee to Timon and Pumbaa, no imperiousness to Mufasa. Simba’s struggle to determine who he is and the awe he feels at remembering his past don’t make it onto his characters’ face. And so because the emotions demonstrated in the voice acting here never seem to sync up with the animals because of their lack of expression, there is a curious flatness to the entire affair. “The Lion King” feels less like watching a cohesive film and more like listening to a separate audio track narrating what is happening onscreen. The two halves don’t mesh.

“The Lion King” focuses on Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as an adult by Donald Glover), the sole son and heir of Pride Rock king Mufasa (again voiced by James Earl Jones). Mufasa wants to teach Simba responsibility, strength, and selflessness, but he is unaware of the nefarious plans of his brother, Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who intends to take the crown for himself. When Scar puts his plan in motion, Simba flees into exile, befriending the free-wheeling Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (voiced by Seth Rogen). But when Simba reunites with his former best friend Nala (voiced as a cub by Shahadi Wright Joseph and as an adult by Beyoncé), he realizes he cannot keep fleeing from the past.

The voice cast here is summarily excellent, but again, so little of this version of “The Lion King” is original to this experience that it’s difficult to tell if the remake succeeds on its own merits. Scar’s song “Be Prepared” is drastically cut short, and his characterization suffers without that additional understanding of his malevolent intention. Beyoncé contributes a song, “Spirit,” but it’s played over a scene that feels particularly like a nature documentary instead of a film—when Simba and Nala run back to Pride Rock—and the track gets a bit lost. The relationship between Mufasa and Simba is a bit tweaked so there is less of a focus on Simba needing to step into responsibility and more about him accepting that he was loved by his father, and that change detracts from the original film’s focus on personal choice and accountability. And seen in 3D, the film’s colors are often quite dull; certain scenes are primarily shades of grey and brown, and they are in stark contrast to the vibrancy of the original’s 2D animation.

Of course “The Lion King” will be exceptionally successful in terms of box-office dollars; it is already expected to be one of the highest grossing of the year. But what this remake does, as have so many before it, is raise questions about whether they add anything new to originals that were already so fantastic in their own right. For “The Lion King” in particular, the answer is no.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.  

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