Much like the Psycho (1998) remake, the live-action Lion King exists more as a conceptually interesting counterpoint to its source material, than an engaging work on its own terms. Although the film is inspired by the broadway musical and presented in a nature documentary ascetic, the narrative remains the same: A youthful and outcast lion called Simba (Donald Glover) must embrace his past and role as the king of his land in the years after his father’s death, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who was murdered by his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Crucially, the original animated film is a fantasy-based story and seeing it filtered through a National Geographic documentary lens is a mixed blessing. Mufasa’s line about Simba being destined to be responsible for “Everything the light touches” takes on profound new meaning as the rays of the sunlight and moonlight become like a dramatic spotlight, emphasising detail and highlighting important moments of the story. One memorable sequence involving Scar and the Hyenas is entirely lit by moonlight and it punctuates the group initially mistaking Scar for Mufasa, with the misty light making him seem like a shadow version of his brother.
In other places, the ascetic choice is remarkable in the off-book sequences that it creates, giving a sense of life for its animal characters, particularly one sequences that show the various paths a mouse treads before being captured by Scar. These silent scenes feel like the interludes that used to permeate vintage Disney animated features and represent the film’s ascetic at its most unconstrained.
The style is less effective in depicting the supernatural aspects of the narrative. The moment depicting Simba talking to his dead father is flat, unimaginative and lacking in resonance because it just involves the young lion hearing his father’s disembodied voice in a large dark cloud. This is a far cry from the larger than life image of Mufasa in the original movie and the back-lit puppet in the stage show. Additionally, it makes the musical sequences feel rather unnecessary because of the jarring effect of the realistic ascetic clashing with the whimsical nature of the source material. “Be Prepared” proves to be an exception as it’s delivered as a rousing military speech than a Disney villain show tune.
Much like its realistic documentary visual scheme, the 2019 remake of The Lion King truly comes alive in small moments that draw out interesting aspects in the story (Scar’s embittered attitude is further caused by being overlooked by a lioness he holds dear.) and interesting interpretations (Billy Eichner reimagines Timon as a cross between a flamboyant hairdresser and Jack from “Will & Grace”). However, these choices were more fascinating then emotionally resonating, something that the original animated feature never lacked in providing.