The Lion King will always be a Hamlet-esque movie about power, family and monarchy, all set to the background of some really catchy tunes.
The original 1994 animation is one of Disney’s most popular – and successful – films ever, so it was inevitable it would try to remake and re-create that success.
The film will always do well – it has Beyoncé and an all-star cast – but that doesn’t mean it automatically usurps the original. Critics haven’t been kind, but early fan reactions suggests it’s more complicated than that.
So what exactly has changed? Here’s how the 2019 remake changes the 1994 animation.
Timon and Pumbaa’s home
Timon and Pumbaa’s little paradise it not quite so little in the remake. When they show off their home to Simba, it’s immediately apparent why the change has been made. This duo isn’t staying in a mini resort in the middle of the desert; Timon and Pumbaa are outsiders, but they aren’t the only ones. There are more animals, all living alongside each other. Think Jasmine slumming it with the peasants in the market – this is Simba seeing how the other half live, really. There are a couple of moments where the difference between Simba and the other animals are pointed out. Timon tells Simba one of the animals won’t ever really want to be friends with him “because, well, he’s prey.”
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many bugs you eat, the other animals will always see you as that carnivore that tears its kind to pieces, but, ey, what can you do?
Timon and Pumbaa are, of course, at the heart of the humour for the better and for the worse. The fart jokes have increased and they aren’t particularly funny (that said the kids all laughed in the cinema).
The Hakuna Matata philosophy is also explained a bit more, partly for laughs, but it also makes you realise how thin it really is. To be fair, Pumbaa points this out himself, even if it is accidentally. The warthog explains how you don’t have to worry about impacting other people, you should just do whatever you want, but when Simba questions his theory, Pumbaa laughs it off saying it has to be true otherwise they’d “just be jerks.”
Later on in the film, Timon and Pumbaa are the much-needed light relief. Photo-realism apparently brings with it a more threatening and darker Scar that needs to be offset by a warthog and meerkat firing out the jokes left, right and centre.
Rafiki isn’t a baboon
Well, he never was. Rafiki was always a mandrill, but the slightly unusual and quirky advisor gets a more accurate depiction of what that means now he’s photo-realistic. The long tail is gone, and his features are more in-line with a mandrill’s. However, the new Rafiki still swings from trees pretty fast, which isn’t something you would see a lazy mandrill do. We guess you can’t have everything.
Rafiki’s character also gets a tweak. Older, wiser and a fan of speaking in his native tongue, this is a more sage version of Mufasa’s old friend. And his famous staff and kung-fu moves? The former makes a return right on time, the latter sadly doesn’t.
The lionesses take a stand
While they still take a bit of a backseat to Simba and the male lions, a few subtle changes mean Sarabi and Nala stand up for themselves. Sarabi also gets a backstory with references to her rejecting Scar and choosing Mufasa. There’s no full explanation of went down all those years ago, but we can fill in the gaps thanks to Scar’s bitter little digs.
Nala’s escape from Pride Rock is shown in full, bumping up the remake’s run-time. It’s nice to see how she actually made it out to find Simba, and to hear more from Beyoncé.
The character gets a sub-plot of sorts, too, in her rivalry with Shenzi, the lead hyena who threatened the cubs when they ventured into the Elephant’s Graveyard. The pair meet in the Elephant Graveyard, but it makes enough of an impression that Shenzi is gunning for Nala in the movie’s climactic fight sequence.
Rowan Atkinson voiced the very British sounding African bird in the original. Zazu, Mufasa’s advisor, was a sassy red-billed hornbill, but in the remake he undergoes a few changes. While he’s still seen as an annoyance for the young cubs, he doesn’t get bullied quite so much.
This Zazu isn’t caged and forced to sing to Scar. In fact, he actually sneaks back to Pride Rock when the hyenas take over to continue giving the Morning Report to Sarabi and he even joins the final battle to reclaim Pride Rock, swooping in to help Simba.
John Oliver’s Zazu switches the sky blue feathers for more accurate black and white colours and the distinctive huge bill for a smaller one – Timon jokingly calls him a puffin when he meets him, which we like to think is a nod to Zazu’s previous look.
Shenzi, Banzai and Ed were the dimwitted cackling hyenas voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in the original. The trio were Scar’s henchmen who helped him take over Pride Rock.
The hyenas return in the remake, but the dynamics have shifted. Shenzi returns, but in name only, as the ‘new’ character is no fool. She leads the pack, is a lot scarier and now has a rivalry with Nala.
The other two hyenas have had a name change and are now called Kamari and Azizi. If you’re wondering why the names changed, Disney opted for more recognisable African names, which isn’t too surprising considering all the characters names have a greater meaning in Swahili.
Scar – Jeremy Irons v Chiwetel Ejiofor
Jeremy Irons made Scar his own in 1994, now Chiwetel Ejiofor puts his own stamp on the role. While Irons opted for a theatrical, sarcastic persona and English drawl, Ejiofor leans into his deeper tone, aiming for something more menacing. Scar is still power-hungry and willing to do anything to take the throne, but he does feel more threatening. This Scar is bitter, he makes more digs at Mufasa and he lays out his gripes more often.
In the original, we’re told his sole motivation is to take over the pride, but in the remake Sarabi’s backstory is actually Scar’s too – she rejected him for his brother. The additional motivation fleshes out our villain a bit more. Whether or not you prefer it probably depends on how much you love Irons’ take.
Pride Rock and the visuals
Pride Rock has been altered now it’s photo-realistic. The shape of the lions’ home has changed quite a bit and its surroundings have altered. When Pride Rock first appears you half expect to hear David Attenborough narrating in his dulcet tones. “The mandrill lifts the baby lion cub… presenting him to the awaiting animals, the Circle of Life continues,” or something like that…
Mufasa in the clouds
The photo-realism really does mean no more magical moments. The African mystique element has to be set within the real, living and breathing African world, so there are a few changes. When Mufasa appears to Simba telling him to “Remember” he steps out, shaped as the cloud with warm tones in the background. In the remake, Mufasa’s spirit still speaks to Simba, but the storm lends a hand – the lightning casts light on the clouds making it look like Mufasa’s face, but there’s no distinct figure.
Whenever Disney remakes one of its much-loved animations it’s inevitable the music will be compared to the original soundtrack. Tim Rice and Elton John teamed up in 1994 and Hans Zimmer scored the soundtrack, so the remake has some pretty big Oscar-winning shoes to fill. The Circle of Life kicks things off and is just as stunning as the iconic opening number was when it first hit cinemas, but a couple of the other tracks don’t hold up as well and a few of the songs have also been shortened to leave room for more of the drama.
Be Prepared is the main musical change. There was a rumour claiming the song would be cut early on, which was thankfully disproven when the album soundtrack was released. The 2019 song – and we use that term loosely – sees Scar walking among the hyenas promising them a brighter future if they stand with him. The Nazi-style walk is gone, which we can understand, but it’s unclear what the vision was for the “villain song” without it. Ejiofor delivers Be Prepared more like a poetry recital than a musical number, and the lyrics – especially the intro – have been altered. We were left missing lines like, “You won’t get a sniff without me!” and “wet as a warthog’s backside”.
Can You Feel the Love Tonight
In short, the song plays over the romantic sequence similarly to the original, but the realistic remake was always going to struggle to convey two hormonal lions in a loving way. The original manages it through facial expressions, soft tones and a twilight feel, but these things are out of the 2019 film’s reach. It’s good, but not as good. Oh, and that weird sexy look Nala gives Simba in the animation? It’s sort of gone. Instead they stare at each other as they lie next to one another after rolling around – they just aren’t bedroom eyes, which is probably a good thing.
James Earl Jones
While some things change, others stay the same and it’s reassuring that James Earl Jones was so iconic as Mufasa that Disney didn’t feel the need to replace him. Casting the same actor for the same role does raise a question, though – did he need to record it all again? The answer is yes, and you can tell. James Earl Jones has a few new lines and he delivers others slightly differently, too.