‘The Lion King’ Divides Critics, From ‘Monumental Achievement’ to ‘Soulless Chimera’ of Animated Original

“This new version of ‘The Lion King’ isn’t realism; it’s literalism,” TheWrap critic William Bibbiani writes

The Lion King Simba
Walt Disney Studios

Critics are roaring in disagreement over Disney’s live-action remake of “The Lion King,” with some saying it’s a “visually stunning” treat and others slamming it as little more than a “deepfake” and that fans should’ve just stuck with the original.

“Unfolding like the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake, Jon Favreau’s (almost) photorealistic remake of ‘The Lion King’ is meant to represent the next step in Disney’s circle of life,” Indiewire‘s David Ehlrich opens his review. “Instead, this soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”

Yet on the other end of the spectrum, Uproxx‘s Mike Ryan says, “There’s a scene featuring a dung beetle pushing a ball of giraffe s— across the desert, and I was mesmerized. People will argue if a remake of ‘The Lion King’ is ‘necessary’ (we’ll get to that), but putting that aside for a second: ‘The Lion King’ is a monumental achievement of technological advancement. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

The film, due in theaters July 19, had a preliminary 61% on RottenTomatoes at press time, based on 51 initial reviews.

Every critic acknowledges the film’s technical achievement, but they’re locked in a battle as to whether aiming for “realism” is in fact a good thing.

“This new version of ‘The Lion King’ isn’t realism; it’s literalism,” TheWrap’s William Bibbiani writes. “This is what it would actually look like if the events in a Disney animated movie happened in real life. Sometimes it’s fascinating, frequently it’s ludicrous, and sometimes — like when an incredibly realistic animal dies on-screen in front of you while its only child mourns him — it’s borderline grotesque.”

Critics similarly called out director Jon Favreau for a lack of creativity, with many heralding the possibilities of actual hand-drawn or digital animation as a reason why the original “Lion King” remains so memorable.”

“Favreau has almost no knack for spectacle, and over and over again, he botches scenes that soared in ’94,” The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd writes. “Early showstopper ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ was practically a Busby Berkeley number. But because real animals could never stack on top of each other like that (silly!), the new version finds Simba and love interest Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph at first, Beyoncé later) trading lines while… running through a stream.”

Disney’s “The Lion King” stars Donald Glover, Beyonce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner and James Earl Jones. Check out more critic reviews below:

David Ehrlich, Indiewire

On a conceptual level, “The Lion King” betrays the power of the hand-drawn artwork that once put the wonder into Disney animation from its earliest features. Favreau’s movie fails to grapple with how the unreality of the studio’s lush 2D artwork unlocked kids’ imagination and made it so much fun to suspend disbelief; the digital wizardry denies our minds the permission they need to dream. Julie Taymor’s award-winning Broadway adaptation is so transportive because it celebrates its artifice, not in spite of it. Favreau has likened the process of making this film to restoring an architectural landmark, but at the end of the day, he’s merely gentrified it.

Mike Ryan, Uproxx

Jon Favreau’s reimagining of The Lion King is probably the most visually striking effects-heavy movie I’ve ever seen. And it’s not even necessarily the main characters that fully achieve that seemingly hyperbolic first sentence – but it’s more this all-encompassing world he and his team have created. For instance, there’s a scene featuring a dung beetle pushing a ball of giraffe shit across the desert and I was mesmerized. People will argue if a remake of The Lion King is “necessary” (we’ll get to that), but putting that aside for a second: The Lion King is a monumental achievement of technological advancement. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

William Bibbiani, TheWrap

There are moments in Favreau’s “The Lion King” where all the animation seems to melt away, where only the best performers are on screen, and this beloved story comes across in all of its beautiful grandeur. The rest of the time it plays like a fascinating but only half-successful proof of concept for this new technology. By adhering so close to the original film, this new “Lion King” seems desperate to hide all its brand-new narrative deficiencies, most of which stem from the very technology with which Disney is trying to impress us.

Kevin Fallon, The Daily Beast

From the breathtaking colors, solar flares, and light reflections shining through the Pridelands sky –a s if applying an Instagram filter to what is already the most astonishing landscape nature has to offer — to the meticulous detail of the photorealistic character animation, The Lion King is a masterpiece feast for the eyes.

Jose Spiegel, /Film

When you’re not watching lions, hyenas, meerkats, and warthogs talking on screen, it’s an impressive display of visual technology, a successful proof of concept. But “The Lion King” is not a silent film, and every time characters talk on screen, an instant sense of lifelessness sets in. As much as Favreau and the many visual-effects artists credited here have successfully recreated (at least to the eye of this viewer) the landscapes of Africa, it’s in service to a misguided idea.

A.A. Dowd, The AV Club

It’s as if every creative decision were subordinate to the film’s misguided insistence on realism, on keeping the mannerisms and movements of these magically intelligent creatures “believable.” And so, all the pleasures are not just secondhand but diminished: We’re watching a hollow bastardization of a blockbuster, at once completely reliant on the audience’s pre-established affection for its predecessor and strangely determined to jettison much of what made it special.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

The couple of new pieces that have been added also seem out of place, but that might be because the old songs are so familiar at this point. It all speaks to the uneven impact of this glossy, no-expense-spared version of The Lion King: It’s a stirring reminder of what can be achieved with all the talent (and money) in the world, as well as a cautionary tale of what can happen when there’s no vision to bind it all together.

Angie Han, Mashable

None of this amounts to anything fresh or new or vital. The remake doesn’t deepen our understanding of these characters, or this story, or this world, in any significant way. It doesn’t offer any new insights into the story’s themes, or update any of its lessons for a new era. The Lion King is content to simply run through the same motions all over again, just with newer, shinier tools.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Basically, this new Lion King sticks very closely to the original version, and in that sense it’s of course watchable and enjoyable. But I missed the simplicity and vividness of the original hand-drawn images. The circle of commercial life has given birth to this all-but-indistinguishable digiclone-descendant; I don’t quite feel like bowing, but respect has to be paid to a handsomely made piece of entertainment.