Have you seen 1994 hand-animated version of The Lion King? Well then, congrats! For all intents and purposes, you've already seen 2019's CGI-animated (don't call it "live action") version. And the original is a great movie! This new one isn't quite its equal for a variety of reasons, but it's still good family popcorn fare.
Any doubts of remaining true to the original dissipate instantly during a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the majestic "Circle of Life" opening sequence. From there, it's essentially the same Hamlet-esque script full of talking animals as the prior version of The Lion King.
For the uninitiated: The lion Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) is the king of the Pride Lands in Africa, and his son Simba (JD McCrary as a cub; Donald Glover as an adult) will one day rule. Simba's evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is not too keen on this, and puts into motion a plot that will result in his ascent to the throne while Simba lives in exile.
Simba meets a couple of fun-loving buddies — Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) — who lift his spirits until his childhood lioness pal Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph as a cub; Beyoncé as an adult) shows up begging for Simba to return. Sparks fly.
So what difference does the change in animation style make to the final product? Quite a lot. On the positive side, the detail in the animals is far more pronounced. The difference between Mufasa's kingly frame and Scar's stringier, ratty body is striking in a way that's harder to get across in hand-drawn frames. The cuteness of lion cubs or other adorable wildlife stands out more because they're made to look real.
But more often than not, the journey away from the original's animation is a hindrance to Lion King '19. Right off the bat, the adherence to some sense of visual realism is mostly limiting. The biggest manifestation of this issue is the creatures' faces, which aren't anywhere near as expressive this time around. As a result, the emotional connections with the characters aren't nearly as strong.
And it may seem surprising, but the Planet Earth detail of the backgrounds also holds things back. There are far fewer vivid colors in the visual palette this go-round: The elephant graveyard isn't as spooky and dark, while the warm neon skies that set the mood in the original "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" number are gone. The "realism" really rears its ugly head when sucking the animal-dancing fun out of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" or, most gallingly, not giving real shape to Mufasa appearing the clouds.
In this bit-too-authentic world, Eichner and Rogen stand out even more as a breath of fresh air voicing Timon and Pumbaa. The variation of their jokes serves as the only major dialogue changes, offering fun quips about locally sourced food, Disney references, and self-referential plays on the original film. The comedians' banter chemistry is tastier than a crème-filled grub.
And lest we forget, The Lion King is a musical. Unsurprisingly, the songs all still hold up. And while some of the actors aren't exactly A-plus singers (I doubt Rogen would take any offense to that), the updated versions all go down smooth. And who's really gonna argue with a Beyoncé/Childish Gambino version of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"? (Careful, the Beyhive will come after you.)
While it's a rather bare nostalgic cash grab, the framework of The Lion King is so sturdy that it still holds up with a different coat of paint. Would it have saved everyone time and money to just re-release the OG on the big screen? Sure. But The Lion King is thankfully unscrew-up-able. ♦