I’ve been dreading this film for a few months. It’s not that I don’t love “The Lion King.” I do. The animated feature was a favorite when I was a kid, and I listened to my cassette copy of the soundtrack regularly. But, the film still devastated me every single time I watched it.
Watching baby Simba cry over his fallen father is completely heart-wrenching, and that’s when it’s an animated cat. (Side note: Animated features from 20-30 years ago did a bang-up job of breaking our hearts. “The Land Before Time,” I’m looking at you.)
With each new trailer, the 2019 reboot showcased the amazing scenery and special effects that would bring the residents of the Prideland to life. They all looked so real. Let me go ahead and say that if a cartoon cat’s death is devastating, I could only imagine how difficult it would be to see a more realistic version.
Jon Favreau’s live-action-ish adaptation follows the 1994 film’s storyline very closely. In fact, some scenes seem to be shot-for-shot. For those who have been living under a rock, “The Lion King” is the coming-of-age story of a young cub named Simba (JD McCrary). His father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones returning to the role), is king of the Prideland, and one day that title will be passed to Simba. Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), isn’t a huge fan of this plan.
When tragedy strikes, Simba blames himself and leaves, eventually finding a new life with a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner). As Simba learns to like cream-filled worms and befriend his food instead of eating it, Scar has taken control of the Prideland, letting hyenas run wild and massacre everything in sight.
Simba’s childhood best friend, Nala (now played by Beyoncé), sets off in search of help and comes across a grown-up Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) in all his “Hakuna Matata” glory. You know the rest. (If you don’t, how have you made it this far in life?)
As I mentioned, a lot of the film is similar to the 1994 classic, from characters to songs to lines. It’s like visiting an old friend after they’ve had a face lift. There’s something familiar and nostalgic about the film; but at the same time, it’s been nipped and tucked enough to be a little bit unique.
Take the song “Be Prepared,” which is Scar’s big-bad moment complete with a chorus of hyenas. The song has been completely revamped with new lines and a new tone. It’s been cut way down. It makes Jeremy Irons’ 1994 take on Scar seem downright cheerful. Ejiofor’s time at the mic isn’t one I enjoyed, so I was pretty glad it was shortened.
A few other tweaks worked quite well, though. John Oliver was perfect casting for Zazu, an adviser to the royal family. He’s a little bit uppity but manages to bring heart to the character, rather than just annoyance. Rogen and Eichner have some pretty stellar moments, as well. (I’m not a big fan of Rogen, but I mean this nicely: They couldn’t have found a better guy to play a pig.) Pumbaa and Timon are absolutely delightful. Again, they’re delightful without being annoying.
Even the hyenas have been toned down. They’re led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), a fierce villain that could give Scar a run for his money. Keegan-Michael Key lightens the mood, though, with a few jokes here and there. Even Rafiki (John Kani) is a bit muted. In other words, he doesn’t seem quite so off his rocker.
As I’m writing all these notes, I realize that these changes reflect a more adult “The Lion King” adaptation. The film is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous at times. All the fun-filled aspects like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and other notable songs and lines are all there. But, some of the fluffy has been balanced out through character changes or simply modified lines.
Having said that, the film managed to break my heart into a thousand pieces. Maybe it’s the fact I wasn’t in the right head space. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone looked so real; it felt like I was watching a real lion die while his cub reacts. Maybe it’s just the fact that Disney is run by masochistic monsters who enjoy causing their viewers pain. (Bambi’s mom, I’m looking at you this time.) Whatever the reason, I had to go sit in the theater bathroom for about 10 minutes while I cried on a toilet.
Bottom line: “The Lion King” makes slight alterations to its source material, which results in a slightly more adult version. If you loved the original, chances are fairly good you’ll love this one, too. Just heed Scar’s words: Be prepared. You can’t see this tragedy, especially if you’re an animal lover like myself, without steeling yourself.