WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Lion King, in theaters now.
The original Lion King was a massive hit for Disney, playing out with much of the same style and fanfare as the rest of the studio's "Renaissance" films, which meant relying on a fun tone to help with the more dramatic elements of the narrative. It was a bright and colorful musical, with plenty of slapstick moments to push the narrative forward, creating a solid comical tone that allowed the lighter moments to help play up the more dramatic ones when they did arrive.
However, the new version of The Lion King trades much of that overt comedy to help fuel the more dramatic interpretation of the material. Character motivations are refined, the violence is amplified and the musical numbers are severely pulled back. In attempting to make the film more realistic, Disney has made The Lion King a considerably darker film than would be expected.
WAR AND PEACE
One of the most overarching changes to the narrative is the unspoken war that's raged in nature for years. In the original animated film, the circle of life was a firmly established law of the land. Even though the hyenas were enemies of the lions, they still tried to avoid outright conflict. In fact, the sequence even features some odd slapstick with Zazu being heated up in a geyser and sent flying into the air. The new film drops most of the lighter aspects of that and in doing so, creates a version of Pride Rock that is a darker place.
The hyenas now openly rebel against Mufasa and the rest of the lions. Their conflict is treated as a cold war that very nearly goes hot during an early scene. Notably, Shenzi is treated not just as the leader of the hyena but as an imposing player in her own right. Although she bows to Mufasa, she almost gleefully causes a massive war by trying to murder Simba in cold blood.
With all the comedy removed it becomes a more harrowing sequence. The attacking hyenas are treated as much more frightening characters. Their eventual battle with the lions is also brutal, with each hit having much more power and impact. It increases the tension of the scene while removing the only source of levity.
Many of the characters in the film are largely the same as their original incarnations, but in some cases, members of the supporting cast are given more complicated motivations and goals. It helps broaden the overall scope of the cast and their journey. Largely though, these changes make the narrative more dramatic and dour.
Scar's hatred for Mufasa is hinted to run deeper than just some demented pursuit of power. Instead, the film implies that Scar also had feelings for Mufasa's future bride, Sarabi. Scar even challenged Mufasa and was beaten down for it. It's even suggested that's where he got his namesake from.
By setting this up as the true nature of their conflict, the battle becomes much less one dimensional. Mufasa even comes across as quite harsh in those moments. It doesn't excuse Scar's eventual murder of his brother, but it does provide more of a reason why he might go that far.
Likewise, other members of the supporting cast are given more dramatic fare to contend with. Zazu doesn't spend the second act of the film trapped in a cage and snarking at Scar as he did in the original. Now he's an exiled messenger, still loyal to the deposed queen and constantly trying to evade the hyenas. Nala isn't just a lioness on the hunt, she's a desperate wannabe freedom fighter, looking for allies to help liberate her home.
Even Timon and Pumbaa are confirmed to be in-canon exiles who have made a new home for themselves, all while embracing a practically fatalist interpretation of the Hakuna Matata mantra.
The previous versions of the characters weren't as shaded, instead opting to be fun and memorable side roles than fully fleshed-out characters. If anything, The Lion King should have embraced these changes more and really stood out from the original film. Unfortunately, it couldn't stop itself from trying to have its cake and eat it too.
The original Lion King is, at heart, very much a musical, and whole-heartedly embraces the genre. This ranges from world-building choruses (Circle of Life), a perky protagonist singing an earnest "I Want" song (I Can't Wait To Be King), the imposing villain song (Be Prepared), the act-break comedy number (Hakuna Matata), the romantic ballad (Can You Feel The Love Tonight) and the triumphant reprisal of the first song. Its narrative is built around this formula. This is part of the reason it was so easy to expand into a massively successful Broadway musical.
But the new Lion King isn't trying to be a musical, despite all the songs in the film. One of the side effects of its advanced technology and photorealistic animation is that the film has a different tone than the original. In striving for realism, it removes much of the slapstick humor of its predecessor, as well as much of the bombast that accompanies (and compliments) the musical elements of the story.
This means none of the songs land with the power they deserve, save maybe Circle of Life. The creators try to meet the more realistic elements halfway and instead throw off both tones. It makes for a weird mishmash, to the detriment of both elements of the movie. In all honesty, Lion King should have instead embraced that it was a different kind of movie than the original, and cut the songs entirely to compliment the new tone for the film. But those musical numbers are a big part of why the film is so beloved even decades later, so Disney kept them in.
It's a shame, too, because the other more interesting elements of the narrative were setting up a more thematically rich version of the film. It might have kept the film from being labeled a poor copy of the original, and allowed the filmmakers to do something new and exciting with the material.
Directed by Jon Favreau, The Lion King features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric André, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.