Critics split on whether 'The Lion King' is revolutionary or revolting—but moviegoers will still show up

Key Points
  • Film critics are split on how they feel about Disney's remake of "The Lion King."
  • While visuals have been lauded as a technical achievement, the hyper realism seems to be at odds with the musical elements — something the 1994 version was able to bypass by having anthropomorphic cartoon animals.
  • As of this posting, "Lion King" has a 59% on Rotten Tomatoes from 111 reviews. As more reviews are tabulated, that number could change.
Still from Disney's remake of "The Lion King" featuring Mufasa and a young Simba on Pride Rock.

The reviews for Disney's remake of "The Lion King" are starting to stream in and critics seem to have split into two camps: the ones that found the film to be a revelatory reimagining of a classic film and those that found the realistic talking lions to be soulless and disconcerting.

Due out next week, "The Lion King" has been one of the most anticipated films of 2019. At CinemaCon in Las Vegas in April, a number of industry experts said it could be the highest grossing film of the year.

At the industry event, Disney shared footage of the film, showcasing the same beautifully rendered and realistic CGI that "The Jungle Book" remake displayed in 2016. The hyper-realistic visuals of the Pride Lands and the lions themselves, who looked like something out of a nature documentary, wowed the crowd of theater owners, industry professionals and critics, drawing audible gasps.

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

However, some critics who got a chance to view the film at its premiere on Tuesday weren't quite as endeared by the full feature. While visuals have been lauded as a technical achievement, the hyper realism seems to be at odds with the musical elements — something the 1994 version was able to bypass by having anthropomorphic cartoon animals.

"Forget the original's Busby Berkeley-like choreography of 'I Just Can't Wait to be King' or the unbridled expressionism of 'Hakuna Matata,' because all these hyper-realistic animals can do is walk around their drab environments and fall over each other," David Ehrlich, writer at IndieWire, wrote in his review of the film. "Don't ask how Zazu the [red-billed] hornbill can speak the Queen's English even though his beak only moves up and down."

Still from Disney's remake of "The Lion King" featuring Mufasa, a young Simba and Zazu in the pridelands.

Disney's new iteration of "The Lion King" appears to have strayed too far into the "uncanny valley," or so some critics have reported. Uncanny valley is when human or animal objects appear almost, but not exactly like real humans or animals and elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in viewers.

Just think back to Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express," from 2004. For some, the film was more skin-crawling than heartwarming, as the animated characters appeared eerily stiff and almost waxen. Still, the film performed well at the box office, pulling in around $311 million worldwide, and was nominated for three Academy Awards and a Golden Globe.

"Most viewers will find this Lion King to be either eye-candy or uncanny valley," John Wenzel, of the Denver Post, wrote. "There's so little in between."

As of this posting, "Lion King" has a 59% on Rotten Tomatoes from 111 reviews. As more reviews are tabulated, that number could change.

"What will sometimes happen, if a movie has a low Rotten Tomato score, is that it will have a slightly smaller opening, but after word of mouth, it will continue to play for weeks," Brock Bagby, executive vice president of B&B Theaters, said. "The general public want to see this movie."

Bagby said that presale tickets for the film were strong and he doesn't think reviews will deter many moviegoers from showing up to see the film when it debuts next week. After all, Disney's "Aladdin" only had a 57% score on Rotten Tomatoes after its release in May and that film is on its way to cross $1 billion, Bagby noted.

"Critics, of course, don't like this film, because it is everything they hate about Hollywood," Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said.

Film critics have long been condemnatory of companies rehashing and rebooting franchises, saying that Hollywood has run out of original and unique ideas and is only using already established brands as a way to make money, not art.

Bock noted that audiences will likely be less critical of the film for borrowing strongly from the original or for the way in which dialogue and songs are delivered from the animals. After all, the animation of "Toy Story" back in 1995 was considered off putting to some because it had rarely been seen before — now it's the norm.

"It doesn't matter what [critics] have to say," he said. People already want to see it or don't want to see it and there are lots of people are in the already want to see it camp."

The Beyonce bounce

Jessica Reif Ehrlich, a Bank of America analyst, doesn't foresee audiences being deterred from buying tickets to "Lion King," either. Given the nostalgia and love for the 1994 version, the appeal of the film to families with young children and the talent of the cast, Ehrlich said, it will be one of the biggest movies of the year.

"It's a four-quadrant movie," she said, which means the film should appeal to people of all ages and genders. 

In China, the film is already on track to be one of the most successful Disney titles, according to local projections. On Friday, "The Lion King" hauled in $13.4 million in China, and that's before the weekend and family crowds arrive at theaters. For comparison, the three-day debut of "Toy Story 4" was $13.2 million in the country.

Seth Rogan (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon) and John Oliver (Zazu) pose alongside their 3D animated characters.
Kwaku Alston | Disney

The remake features a stunning cast that includes Beyonce (Nala), Donald Glover (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Billy Eichner (Timon), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa) and John Oliver (Zazu).

Beyonce's fan base alone could be a major driving force for the film. The musical sensation has 126 million followers on Instagram and nearly 15 million on Twitter.

"Beyonce alone, you are going to get every girl to go see this movie," Ehrlich said. "The talent is incredible."

Of course, star power isn't the only ace up Disney's sleeve. "The Lion King" has long been one of company's most beloved properties. The original animated feature has earned more than $968 million globally since its 1994 release, according to Box Office Mojo.

The film even spawned a Tony-award winning musical that has become one of the longest-running theatrical productions in history. The production has been translated into eight languages, including Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese.

In New York alone, more than 95 million people have seen "The Lion King" musical, shelling out more than $1.5 billion to see the show that debuted in 1997.

This widespread, global affection for "The Lion King" bodes well for the upcoming live-action remake. Particularly considering "The Jungle Book" earned $966.5 million at the worldwide box office in 2016 and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" remake hauled in more than $1.26 billion globally.

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