Last Thursday, the live action version of The Lion King was finally released in theaters. And we’ve now seen it. And we all know that I don’t mince words when it comes to these movies. (Lest we forget the Aladdin debacle…. Oy.)
But before I get into my thoughts on it, I want to make one thing very clear. I don’t care whether or not it was “necessary”.
I say this because one of the key complaints that I’ve been hearing is that it was a very close remake of the original that was visually stunning but “didn’t need to be made”. So I want to be very clear about my mindset going into the movie. All movies are optional. All art is in some sense gratuitous. And while I always want to walk out of these live action remakes feeling like they were made for some reason other than milking more money out of the originals – and while I do want Disney to continue to evolve and create new characters and stories – it is perfectly fine with me if a live action remake is nothing more than a lovingly crafted homage to an original animated film (that, it’s worth pointing out, is more often than not itself a retelling of an older tale).
So. With that said. Let’s dig in.
This isn’t going to be some twelve point pros and cons list. I’m just going to say this: It’s beautiful. I can tell that it was hard to make and we can discuss why. But it’s quite wonderful.
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Oh…and it’s about Scar. And you’ll enjoy it a lot more if you go in knowing that. I’d argue that Scar is the real focus in this version of The Lion King in the same way that Thanos was the real focus of Infinity War. I enjoyed Infinity War more after I’d processed that it was about Thanos. And I appreciate this version of The Lion King more knowing that it’s about Scar.
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As the opening scene began, mirroring the original, I surprised myself with a few tears. In a way that was a testament to how beautifully it was done. But in a way that also spoke volumes about the task ahead for this movie…because the original The Lion King, from the moment of those opening images, is an institution – and if you’re going to take it on, you need to do right by it.
Once that scene ended and the dialogue began, like many people, it took me a split second to get used to what I was seeing with the animals speaking. And after that split second, I fell into the film and forgot that I was looking at CGI.
That said, there were parts of the beginning of the movie that were difficult to process. This isn’t a critique at all. Quite the opposite. Because for me, the most interesting thing about this movie was that the fact that it was lifelike CGI made some of the themes more complex even if the script was nearly identical.
It doesn’t matter that the dialogue is largely the same. Simba is harder to process and tolerate when he’s not a lovingly drawn cartoon. His faults are more pronounced. His place in the “circle of life” is more clear when you have to process the reality of an actual grown lion subsisting on grubs with his warthog and meerkat friends. And the problems of a “hakuna matata” lifestyle need to be met a bit more head on – with what’s passingly, but perhaps very poignantly, referred to as the “meaningless line of indifference”.
But nothing – and I mean nothing – in this movie is more different than Scar. Not because they’ve forced more character development into the spoken script. Not because much of anything about each scene is different. But because he looks SICK. He is emaciated. His back is bowed. He has an actual, prominent scar that mars the skin surrounding one of his eyes that makes you wonder what he’s been through. He still says and does all of the same horrible things. But he looks so beaten – particularly in scenes with his bigger, healthier older brother, Mufasa (and later nephew, Simba), next to him that I found myself seeing his character in a much different light. And feeling for him much, much more in moments like when a very young, very precocious Simba points out that one day he’ll be giving him orders.
And this was why the movie was really interesting to me. There are live action remakes like Cinderella, where the original storyline and characters were so simple and undeveloped that they were able to make a masterpiece live action film that shed an enormous about of light on the original. And there are live action remakes like Aladdin, where they just seem to be awkwardly shoving teases of character development and political correctness into an old script. But here in The Lion King, it’s something different. Here we have what is ultimately a more complex movie, in large part simply because we are forced to watch what has always been a very dark story through the eyes of “real” animals. And that is ultimately much harder to watch.
Even though much of this movie is literally a shot for shot recreation of the original, it is more interesting simply for the fact that it is CGI – and the subtle changes to the original, like Timon and Pumbaa’s “meaningless line of indifference” flow naturally from the fact that our brains demand a more logical retelling when we aren’t looking at a cartoon.
And that, my friends, is my major takeaway from this movie. It was beautiful. And it was incredibly interesting to see how it needed to change, ever so subtly, simply because our brains were effectively watching real animals recreate a very dark script. Whether it was to make the hyenas acknowledge a lack of personal space. Or to acknowledge that Pumbaa and Timon’s take on life was borderline irresponsible. Or to make one of the most evil Disney villains of all time a much, much more sympathetic character.
Did I have other thoughts? Sure. Let me rattle them off:
- Young Simba’s character was just a hair off of working for me and didn’t fully click into place until he curled up with Mufasa’s body.
- Beyonce was lovely. Her role was understated and Can You Feel the Love Tonight was just nostalgic enough to evoke a few tears.
- Timon and Pumbaa were the light of the film and added incredible levity when we were needing it most. (And if you “hated” the film because of Seth Rogan’s singing voice, I’ll gently remind you that his character was a comical warthog who sang for all of a few minutes. Make like Elsa and let it go.)
- Seeing Scar openly pressure Sarabit to marry him answered a lot of questions that I’d had in the original. And I don’t think it was a mistake that he doesn’t hit her in this version in the scene where Simba returns.
- Oh…and lions are freaking beautiful.
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And there you have it. If you’ve already seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
And if you left the movie wanting more, you can see the many ways that Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom is celebrating the release of The Lion King and working to support the world’s declining lion populations right here.