The Lion King
Updated: Feb 9
The Lion King marks the third Disney live-action movie this year based on one of their animated classics. I understand why people like this idea. Between tickets and the inevitable concessions, it is expensive to take the family to a night out at the cinema. I suppose the closest way to ensure everyone will enjoy themselves is to see something you all already like. While I find the idea to be very limiting, the large box-office The Lion King is expected to draw disagrees with me. I have enjoyed some of these remakes (for instance, Aladdin was pretty good), though, in general, they are well-made, but unnecessary. Unfortunately, that description is perfect for The Lion King.
Odds are, you are familiar with The Lion King so I will just say the plot is the same and all the characters and songs are here. There are several additions (this is about a half-hour longer than the original), however it is still basically the same movie. What makes it stand apart is the filmmaking. Although this is the “live-action” version, it is completely animated. Unlike their other choices for adaptation, this one has no humans onscreen. So instead of Simba being hand-drawn, he is photo-realistically computer animated. It gives it the feel of a nature documentary, except the animals talk and reenact Hamlet. Their movements are very realistic, adding more weight to the story.
What is impressive is the way these movements give the animals their personalities. They have little in the way of facial expressions (which probably would have come off as creepy), yet the differences between, say, Scar and Mufasa, tell us a lot about them. Mufasa is regal, brave and honorable. He holds himself like a king. Scar is conniving and insolent. He slinks around like he is up to no good. It is clear a lot of thought was given to every visual aspect of each character. When Mufasa climbs a rock, he does not just walk up it; he has to find his footing, like a real lion. The attention to detail is remarkable and makes everyone feel like an individual.
That same detail is present in the backgrounds. When Mufasa tells Simba “Everything the light touches is our kingdom” and you can see the light dimming on the far reaches of the plains, it is easy to see why the little cub is awestruck. Everything from the rocks to the grains of sand are as exact as the fur on the animals. It is an incredible achievement. The advances in technology help tremendously, but director Jon Favreau and his team deserve the credit. Though it is nothing new story wise, it is consistently lovely to look at.
As usual with these massive productions, the cast is phenomenal. Donald Glover, Beyoncé, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Oliver lend their voices. Nobody gets the opportunity to stretch the characters from their original incarnations. Despite the mild tonal changes (the humor is lessened and the serious parts are a little darker), these are still the same creations audiences loved 25 years ago. Jones, the only repeat performer, is the perfect Mufasa: commanding and paternal. The standouts are Ejiofor, jealous and evil as Scar, and Eichner and Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Even if their comic shenanigans are less goofy, the warthog/meerkat team remains amusing and surprisingly useful for advancing the story’s themes. Everyone else is okay, if restricted by the faithfulness to the source material.
It is easy for me to see people loving 2019’s The Lion King (108 minutes without the end credits). For newcomers, it is a good story they have never had the pleasure of experiencing before. For fans, it is visually amazing and will remind them of something they loved when they were kids. Nostalgia is a powerful tool Disney has wielded with great success. My philosophy is if you are going to make something again, find a new approach. Disney’s strategy is to give them what they remember, then a little more on top of that, like a director’s cut in live-action. I certainly do not blame them for going this route, but it just feels so redundant. I admire the artistry involved in putting The Lion King together. I highly recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible. Yet the feeling I was left with was: It was made really well, but did it need to be made at all?
3 out of 5
Donald Glover as Simba
JD McCrary as Young Simba
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala
Shahadi Wright Joseph as Young Nala
Seth Rogen as Pumbaa
Billy Eichner as Timon
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar
John Oliver as Zazu
James Earl Jones as Mufasa
Alfre Woodard as Sarabi
Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Jeff Nathanson