A Little Background
Before I dive into this, I think you need to know a few things up front.
The new Lion King film is not a BAD film. In fact, it is technically inspired. It is jawdroppingly gorgeous, and amazing to look at. And for a film, it does fine. Just fine. It doesn't ruin my childhood, insult my soul, or cause me to fly into a car-flipping rage. It's FINE.
It could have been so much more, and there's A LOT holding it back, and quite a lot of that...quite frankly could have been fixed easily, especially given Disney's resources AND that they have a direct line to the source material (it's THEIRS).
So, a little background for where I'm coming from.
I LOVE the original Lion King film. It is my all-time favorite animated Disney film (Mulan and Hunchback make a close second). And it's so much more than just the amazing artistic animation; the musical score is inspired, beautiful, and endlessly fascinating (the extra music album produced, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, is also some amazing work); the themes of the film are tight, and there's not a scene I skip when I replay it (in the theatrical version, at least). Everything about it is polished, emotional, artistic, and meaningful. Every scene has a purpose, and it's all executed with precision.
This, on the other hand, has some pretty stand-out problems for me. Let's break them down.
Spoilers, I guess. ;)
1) The Musical Score
To understand how pissed I am about the score in this viewing, all you have to do is read what Zimmer had planned for this rendition.
"In revisiting the score for “The Lion King,” Zimmer realized the original themes and music were the “emotional spine of the story.” He brought back many who worked on the original film, including Lebo M, orchestrator Bruce Fowler, conductor Nick Glennie-Smith, arranger Mark Mancina, plus several singers from the choir including Carmen Twillie (who performed “Circle of Life” in the 1994 movie)."
Alright! So we've got many of the original players, plus the amazing iconic vocal renditions of Lebo M, and the original composer, Hans Zimmer, all in the mix. This is going to be epic!
And it could have been. Except for a few glaring problems:
1) Your Lead can't sing. Well, maybe he CAN, but his style and range is very different than what the arrangement of the song requires. The youth that plays Simba struggles with higher registers, and during I Just Can't Wait To Be King, in key moments of belting it out...the kid goes to FALSETTO. IN THE FINAL CUT OF THE FILM. His volume drops to nothing, and it is very, very obvious. Notes aren't held to any kind of length (so no breath support), and any riffing you've got is used to HIDE this fact (badly) instead of acting as an augmentation to the original. Nala, on the other hand, overpowers and outshines his ability immediately. They need to be equal, folks. These are your LEADS. And older Simba (Donald Glover)...is doing his best. An otherwise excellent artist and I think a great speaking choice for Simba, comes off a little strange in Hakuna Matata, where he riffs before it feels appropriate. If you can carry the song, riff away, but don't riff to hide the fact that you can't carry the song. And before you think me rude to recommend vocal coaching to a musical artist...every musical artist gets vocal coaching throughout their career. As one continues to augment and extend their craft, they train to do so. Disney, you've got billions of dollars...you couldn't afford a vocal coach worth their salt? Or maybe, they were directed to sing that way, and if so, I very much disagree with their decisions, especially when it came to child Simba. Can You Feel The Love Tonight? ...was very good (despite being during THE DAY), and refreshing to hear the leads sing the whole song together, but I think it's Glover's style, directed or not, that felt off somehow.
2) Seth Rogen cannot sing it seems. When he does, it's played for laughs, but it is no less painful to see and hear. It's tragic, too, because Rogen is otherwise WONDERFUL as Pumbaa, but with Timon belting out excellent tracks beside him, it's even more glaring. The animated Pumbaa can sing (stylized, but he hits the notes he has); this one should too.
3) Be Prepared...barely exists. What happened to a great villain song? Scar speaks over drums for a bit, they skip 2/3 of the song, and it's over. WTH?
4) The score cues are rushed - let me explain. All the beats are there: themes, swelling score, iconic instrumental sections along with new composed work...but it never takes its time. It never revels in the themes it creates. Remember, this is supposed to be the "emotional spine," yet it seems like it's barely there, despite there being tons of music in the film. Take the iconic Stampede scene for example: in the animated original, the rumbling grows slowly (just like this one), we get a freaking dolly zoom on Simba as strings rise and a dissonant choir looms at the edges of our eardrums, creating tension to the scene, then Simba starts running and we get rhythmic singers moving along, working their magic. New version? Forget that rise of tension, let's just slam the rhythmic theme right down on top of the little cub. Everyone knows this theme. We'll bank on the memory; we don't have to "build tension;" how silly!
And that's all over the place. Themes show up in places they were never there before, or aren't really appropriate/take away from the scene they're in, or show up too early - which sends the message of "rushing" through the songs and setpieces; don't mind us, just prancing through hitting our check boxes on our money list!
5) Oh Hai random Beyonce. Following one of my FAVORITE scenes in the film, Simba begins charging back to pride rock. Now, this is another iconic segment of travel with rousing rhythmic choirs, Zimmer's awesome score - it's short, but truly great, with lots of energy and momentum. In this new film, we get the beginning transient notes of this original theme, and I hear the splendid tones of Lebo M start to creep in...and I get excited. I studied the music of this whole film, and Lebo M is amazing, so I'm thinking, "Ooooo, maybe we'll get a cool Lebo M jam session over Zimmer's instrumental section and we'll get some cool layering, because, ya' know, it's okay to be new as long as you're honoring the orig-- Is that a freaking pop song!?" And sure enough, there's a random-ass pop song in my Lion King movie. They killed Be Prepared and gave Beyonce her own random-ass song (and boy is it jarring to hear - the styles aren't COMPLETELY misaligned, but it certainly doesn't feel good). Hey, I get it, she's playing adult Nala and she does really, really well...but her random song doesn't fit here. Put it in the credits, Disney. The hell?
6) If you're going to add music, add Shadowland. For those of you who have heard the aforementioned Rhythm Of The Pride Lands, there's an amazing track called "Lea Halalela (Holy Land)", which was later adapted to the Broadway musical under the title, Shadowland, and is sung by Nala. It is a showstopper of a song; it acts as a transition point for her, as she weighs finding help to save her people and abandoning them to the terrors of Scar, and she may not return - it's a valuable exploration. But naw, let's give Beyonce a new LP that has little bearing on the overarching story. Sounds great.
2) Rafiki is awesome. Yet his most important lesson isn't in the film.
"Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or...learn from it!"
Remember that? Yep. Not in the film. The lesson's not even there paraphrased. Never mind Rafiki. It's not like he's important or anything.
3) A Lack Of Emotion
Emotion. There is little of it.
I get it. They're lions. The animators worked REALLY FREAKING HARD to make these animals look real, and they TOTALLY DO OMG...but, when they talk and emote, it's very strange. It's hard to get the characters to actually express things. It all feels flat and hollow, and that's true with *some* of the voice acting too. Characters just rattle off lines like they're crossing off a grocery list - where's the love? Where's the care?
Simba, begging for his father to get up after the stampede...is delivered TOO FAST. C'mon Favreau, you've done movies before, this is a scene where you take your time. It's important. Duh. Even as an older Simba begs the clouds not to leave him again, it feels empty.
Favreau rushes through the scenes and beats from the original, but pads the stuff they changed or added, and that means the pace is all off, too. Everything feels rushed, and yet the movie is longer than the original. Big emotional beats carry little weight - Mufasa's death, Simba's lesson, Nala's leaving (very poignant in the Broadway show), Simba's ascension (like, seriously, you just flash cut to the end of the film mid-roar?) - not because they're poorly done (cinematography-wise), but because they don't take the time needed to FEEL. There's no class; no real understanding of what made the original so great, despite a seasoned director at the helm.
Characters have no personality. Facial expressions have been sacrificed in favor of "photo-realism." Impressive, yes, but tells little in terms of narrative. HUGE moments of the story (the stampede scene and all that transpires, one of the most iconic and traumatic and expertly crafted sequences in film and animation)...are bland and distant. And so much of the cast...sounds tired. Even James-Earl Jones; though he should be VERY familiar with these lines. What the hell?
Maybe I'll settle into it, and for kids today, it's serviceable...but when the 1994 version is STILL a better story and presentation with better music, better performances, and better messages, why "upgrade" to this soulless cinematic experience that lacks...heart?
This is clearly a cash-grab. Soulless, useless, and shameless.
4) So What Did I Like?
1) There's a lot more emphasis placed on Sarabi being a badass, and I love it. There's an implied "war" with the hyenas, which makes Shenzi a rival general, not Scar. As it stands, Shenzi is clearly the pack leader of the hyenas, not a flunkie to Scar, and the switch had a lot of potential. Maybe Shenzi and Sarabi get to have a show-down, as they would be appropriate opposites? Naw, Nala fights her. Glad she got to do more, though, the potential was wasted.
2) There's also a stated and implied love triangle where Scar holds Sarabi in high respect, but she chose Mufasa as a mate over him, which adds depth and complexity to the three's relationship, as well as weight and power to Sarabi's continued defiance after Mufasa is dead. There isn't a lot of exploration of this theme, but it's there I guess.
3) The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a lot of fun, and they added in the other "prey" animals as side characters hanging with Timon and Pumbaa, which was genuinely fun, and their interactions with Simba got some genuine chuckles out of me.
4) The musical additions - save Beyonce - are good. Lovely, even. More Lebo M please. That said, the music is somehow...muted throughout the film. The producers quote as the emotional spine. ...This film has NO SPINE.
5) The hyenas are wonderful, though emoting, again, is difficult. Ed being able to talk had a lot of potential, too, but that character isn't in the film much.
6) It is a technical marvel. ...and yet the CG is somehow lazy. Because it's a shot-for-shot remake of something that didn't need to be remade.
When a random kid walks out of the theater, shrugs her shoulders and says unprovoked that "It was rushed and I didn't connect with the characters," you have a problem, Disney.
You have the resources.
Do it right.
Back to games soon.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.