The Lion King First Reviews: Visually Stunning, but Few Surprises

Critics say the remake is an impressive technical achievement with some memorable performances, but it doesn't do anything new or interesting with the familiar material.

by | July 11, 2019 | Comments

Disney’s new version of The Lion King is one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. But will it satisfy expectations? That depends on what fans are looking for in this live action-style reimagining — a faithful adaptation of the classic 1994 animated feature or something relatively new and all its own. And will they consider the photorealistic look of the characters now impressive or problematic?

The first reviews of the movie, which opens on July 19, have begun to appear online, and they’re strikingly divided on whether this is a stunning achievement or an unnecessary failure. Everyone is on board with the technical accomplishment and the effectiveness of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s comic relief, but they’re split on whether that’s enough to recommend the redo or not.

Here’s what critics are saying about The Lion King:

Does the new Lion King stand on its own?

This new version of The Lion King is sure to be a classic in its own right.  It’s already my favorite film of the year.
– Danielle Solzman, Solzy at the Movies

It’s hard to say why it’s needed when the first one already exists… as an expansion of the 1994 film, The Lion King says and adds little.
– Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

The Lion King doesn’t want to be compared, but it doesn’t want to stand on its own… it wants to remind you of the 1994 version and make it prettier to watch.
– Kristen Lopez, io9

Everything that works in The Lion King does so through the inventions of the former film, in less dazzling fashion.
– Robert Daniels, 812 Film Reviews

The Lion King is beholden to the original in a way it can never escape…most of the film feels like little more than a cover of the original.
– Brandon Zachary, CBR

Can we appreciate it alongside the original?

It’s a nice complement to the original that will answer some questions you may have had watching the animated version.
– Kirsten Acuna, Insider

[The filmmakers] have crafted a complementary feature that stands to reinvigorate our love for the timeless, award-winning masterpiece.
Courtney Howard, Fresh Fiction

The Lion King at least honors what came before, using current animation technology to convince us that we’re watching the real thing.
Peter Debruge, Variety

Lion King

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

Is it just a shot-for-shot remake?

Having just watched the original… I can confirm that many, if not most, of Lion King 2019’s shots and lines are replicas of Lion King 1994, except photorealistic.
Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

This zombified digital clone of the studio’s first original cartoon feature is the Disney equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.
David Ehrlich, IndieWire

It is not, a shot for shot remake of the animated classic. It isn’t… watch closely or maybe we’ll wait for someone to prove that is isn’t when the DVD hits.
Jazz Tangcay, Awards Daily

What about the technological craft involved?

Technically speaking, it’s a marvel.
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

The Lion King is a monumental achievement of technological advancement. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx

If a movie could be judged solely on technique, The Lion King might qualify as a great one.
A.O. Scott, New York Times

There’s a tremendous amount of craft in The Lion King, and under the direction of Jon Favreau, a complete absence of art.
Matt Patches, Polygon

There’s no sense of wonder in this new Lion King—its most visible attribute is ambition.
Stephanie Zacharek, Time

[It’s] joyless, artless, and maybe soulless.
A.A. Dowd, AV Club

 Can’t we just turn off our brains and enjoy it?

It’s a movie for the senses, and definitely a visually appealing film from beginning to end.
Christie Cronan, Raising Whasians

There’s never a moment when a full suspension of disbelief occurs.
Robert Daniels, 812 Film Reviews

Walt Disney Studios

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

Does the photorealism work?

The realism of the animals makes it hard to connect with them as characters, undermining the inspired anthropomorphism that has been the most enduring source of Disney magic.
A.O. Scott, New York Times

The hyperreal visuals sometimes feel like they’re in conflict with the Shakespearean drama and crowd-pleasing songs.
Matt Maytum, Total Film

The animation is so photorealistic that it’s disconcerting to see these lifelike animals walking (and singing) through the familiar drama.
Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

Has the disadvantage of prohibiting one’s ability to tell the difference between characters; the female lions especially are nearly impossible to tell apart and there are only two of significance.
Kristen Lopez, io9

How are the voice performances?

The voice acting really had to deliver to make sure the audience could connect with these characters. The powerhouse cast did a great job.
Dorian Parks, Geeks of Color

The mismatch between the feeling the actor is conveying in their performance against the impassive countenance of a lion can be jarring.
Meagan Navarro, Consequence of Sound

The vocal performances aren’t equipped to carry the emotional weight that the hand-drawn animation once expressed on its own.
David Ehrlich, IndieWire

And the classic musical numbers?

All the familiar musical numbers… benefit from fresh producing by Pharrell Williams with African vocal and choir arrangements produced by Lebo M.
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

All of the songs are pretty great in the remake except for one. The new version of ‘Be Prepared’ is a complete misfire.
Kirsten Acuna, Insider

I was underwhelmed with the ‘Be Prepared’ redo.
Christie Cronan, Raising Whasians

2019’s version, shackled by its realism, ditches almost anything resembling choreography in favor of having animals do what animals do, which is mostly just run around.
Joshua Rivera, GQ

Walt Disney Studios

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

What about the new ones?

Don’t be surprised to see “Spirit” become a strong contender for Best Original Song.
Jazz Tangcay, Awards Daily

Beyoncé’s new song for the film, “Spirit” is amazing.
Dorian Parks, Geeks of Color

That original track by Beyoncé feels like a welcome addition rather than an intrusive one.
Angie Han, Mashable

Beyoncé contributes a largely unnecessary, but exhilarating new single.
Peter Debruge, Variety

What else does the movie get right?

We have more Nala than ever, and her expanded role opens up an enormous range of emotional depth.
Jazz Tangcay, Awards Daily

Whether ad-libbed or written into Jeff Nathanson’s otherwise unadventurous script, the new dialogue between Timon and Pumbaa is the film’s only welcome new addition.
David Ehrlich, IndieWire

The techniques available in photo-realistic or live-action allow to expand on stories that were limited by the animation of its time.
Danielle Solzman, Solzy at the Movies

Let’s talk about Beyoncé…

I was impressed with Beyoncé’s voice acting. She was able to bring the same energy as the young Nala, while still bringing her own her flavor to the older version.
Dorian Parks, Geeks of Color

She brings soul and depth to Nala.
Angie Han, Mashable

Pop goddess Beyoncé Knowles-Carter lends still more depth, conveying aspects of bravery and independence in Nala’s personality that weren’t there before.
Peter Debruge, Variety

Knowles-Carter proves more of an asset in the singing stakes (providing a new original song) than the dramatic.
Matt Maytum, Total Film

Walt Disney Studios

(Photo by Walt Disney Studios)

How are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa?

Where the other actors are left to say nearly all the original film’s dialogue, Eichner and Rogen just seem to be naturally riffing off each other, to hilarious effect.
Kristen Lopez, io9

When the emotional beats of the narrative don’t pack quite the same punch, the effortless charm of Eichner and Rogen make for a welcome surprise.
Meagan Navarro, Consequence of Sound

Rogen and Eichner worked so well with one another, it was like they were born to play these roles.
Dorian Parks, Geeks of Color

Billy Eichner’s Timon is transcendent.
Matt Patches, Polygon

Who else stands out?

It’s Florence Kasumba as hyena pack leader Shenzi who earns this film’s MVP title. Her Eartha Kitt-like ferocity makes for a magnetic and intimidating presence through the power of her vocal timbre.
Courtney Howard, Fresh Fiction

The surprise MVP may be Florence Kasumba as the hyena pack leader Shenzi…this new version of the character is threatening and instantly memorable.
Brandon Zachary, CBR

Ejiofor is a wonderfully menacing Scar, with a patois of frustrated condescension that’s a welcome counterpoint to the straightforward reverence of the other lion actors.
William Bibbiani, The Wrap

Should Disney be worried?

People are going to love this film.
Danielle Solzman, Solzy at the Movies

It serves up the expected goods, which will be duly gobbled up by audiences everywhere like the perfectly prepared corporate meal it is.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

Audiences are likely to eat it up. And that’s the circle of life.
Rafer Guzman, Newsday

The Lion King opens in theaters July 19, 2019. 


The Lion King (2019)

Adjusted Score: 70.925%
Critics Consensus: While it can take pride in its visual achievements,The Lion King is a by-the-numbers retelling that lacks the energy and heart that made the original so beloved--though for some fans that may just be enough.
Synopsis: From Disney Live Action, director Jon Favreau's all-new "The Lion King" journeys to the African savanna where a future king... [More]
Directed By:

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