Confession time: I’ve never really liked The Lion King. During the great animated Disney resurgence of the late-80s through mid-90s, the white boxed VHS cassettes my sister and I had playing on repeat were Aladdin and the rereleased 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps it was the hard-to-watch trauma at the core of the animated Lion King. Perhaps growing up in Africa I was less dazzled by the novelty of the movie’s savannah setting. For whatever reason, I wasn’t part of that large group who regard 1994’s The Lion King as the pinnacle of that specific Disney period.
So, with early word for the “live-action” Lion King remake being mixed, and having zero nostalgic leanings, I didn’t have high expectations going into the press screening. Coming out, though, I can say that I absolutely loved it. The new Lion King has its flaws, certainly, but visually it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before, with the CGI reaching a new pinnacle of convincing realism. Watch The Lion King 2019 on as big a screen as you can.
Evidently, some reviewers have found the animal characters far less expressive than their painted celluloid counterparts. However, the greatest pleasure I received from the remake was seeing how the filmmakers translated anthropomorphic cartoon animals into hyper-real creatures that look like they wandered straight out of BBC Earth. If you can’t have lions gesticulating by waving their paws around, or hyenas arching a brow and wagging a rubbery tongue, how do you bring that emotion through in the natural behaviour, movement and general character design of the animals?
Actor-filmmaker Jon “Happy Hogan” Favreau, who also helmed the wildly successful Jungle Book, has pulled off impossible visual magic yet again with his team of animators and all-star voice cast. The latter is called upon to do some emotional heavy lifting, and the performers are universally good to fantastic – even if some are better singers than others. (*Cough* Not you, Chiwetel Ejiofor).
If for some bizarre reason you are unfamiliar with the plot of The Lion King, it’s a vaguely sketched Hamlet with lions. Following the death of his father, Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones), the king of the pride lands, lion cub Simba is convinced that the incident is his fault. He flees, leaving his scheming uncle Scar (Ejiofor), along with the local hyena pack, to seize the kingdom. Adult Simba (Donald Glover), aided by allies like lioness Nala (Beyonce), warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) must confront his uncle, his guilt and the weight of his father’s legacy to restore balance to the great “Circle of Life.”
Now the live-action Lion King is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the animated original, complete with the same Elton John-Tim Rice songs and Hans Zimmer’s score. While this may rob the movie of some energy at key moments – the famous wildebeest stampede is surprisingly subdued – such an approach here doesn’t feel as suffocating as it did in the legitimately live-action and human-populated Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps it’s the constant translation process from cartoon to photo-realism. Perhaps it’s the welcome freshness and naturalism of the vocal performances, which makes settling on a favourite difficult. Either way, I never felt bored, which is an achievement given the predictability inherent to remakes by their nature.
It honestly would have been better if The Lion King 2019 played a bit more fast and loose with its source material. Truly daring would have been to tell the story nature documentary-style, with zero talking, but the film would’ve also benefitted from simply spending more time layering familiar moments and figures. As one example, while a big deal was made about James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa from the 1994 film, his presence is actually a distraction when you have newcomers like Ejiofor providing their own original take on established characters. Ejiofor injects a gritty gravitas into Scar, which is quite different from Jeremy Irons’s portrayal in the 90s, drenched in smooth, classic villainy. Meanwhile, Glover’s Simba has a breezy, “no worries” charm much like the actor.
As for scene-stealers, John Kani as mandrill Rafiki is a delight, and Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre provide an updated comical take on the hyenas. This said, the crowd-pleasers are certain to be – as they were in the original film – Timon and Pumba. Eichner and Rogan provide all-new punny banter of their own as they attempt to get Simba to embrace their live-in-the-moment Epicurean lifestyle. This said, given his campy vocal leanings, I did keep half-expecting Eichner’s Timon to say “Honey badger don’t give a shit” at some point.
I’m still stunned how much I enjoyed the new Lion King. Despite a lack of freshness, it’s easy to get caught up in the sense of wonder it creates as a result of its consistent visual wizardry. Definitely worth watching, and definitely the best of this year’s batch of live-action Disney remakes.
Last Updated: July 17, 2019