The Lion King Review: Spellbinding But Too Familiar?

What Jon Favreau has done with The Lion King remake is frankly unbelievable. The film is made entirely on computers, not a single camera was carried into the lush brown forests of Africa, not an actual animal shot through a lens and no performances captured. By definition, it’s undeniably an animated film. Yet, almost everything that I witnessed on the big screen today, from the majestic lions that roared atop of Pride Rock, the dirty looking warthog with its overly frizzy fur, right down to the tiny ants carrying food up a tree stem to the tinier sand particles that rise like dust during a stampede felt as photorealistic as an Animal Planet documentary. Much like Avatar in 2009, this is a groundbreaking achievement in cinema technology. Jon Favreau has changed the (visual) game and deserves all the praises and plaudits that will come his way in the coming weeks, months and years.

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But apart from its trailblazing animation and VFX, is the movie actually good? Well, the short answer is, yes, it’s very good and easily the best out of the Disney live-action remakes that have come out so far. There is however a larger discussion to be had here because it’s also very, very same as the original. Let’s start with the good. At this point, it has become very familiar, but the Shakesperean tale never gets old. Everybody already knows this but for the three people reading who don’t, The Lion King follows a young cub, Simba, who flees from his kingdom after the untimely death of his father. But the prodigal son will return to rid the kingdom of the tyrants who have turned his vibrant home into a greying graveyard. Yes, the bones of Hamlet form the skeleton of this film and its original counterpart.

There’s just something about nostalgia, eh?

As The Lion King opens from black and we see the silhouette of a large tree outlined against the rising sun, I felt the fine hairs on my neck slowly start to rise and when the thunderous and iconic “NAAAAAA” blared through the speakers, tears started flowing down my eyes like the Boyoma Falls. And just like that, I was transported back to my childhood days, watching the original on repeat in my grandmother’s house. But I’m also confident that this opening song will hook even those who aren’t as familiar with the original or kids of this generation whose very introduction to The Lion King might be this 2019 version. It’s just that powerful of an opening.

Despite being about 15 minutes longer than the original, The Lion King flies by like the breeze on a chilly Sunday evening and is anchored by a phenomenal cast of performers who voice wonderfully written characters. At the centre is Simba, whose adult version is brought to life by Donald Glover, who brings the right amount of jauntiness and later fire and vigour to the character. We also have Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba, both of whom have fabulous comedic chemistry flowing not just between the two of them, but with Glover as well. Let’s not forget, Glover is one of the funniest people on the planet right now; just check out Atlanta and Community.

In fact, there’s a fourth-wall-breaking comedic scene right after ‘Hakuna Matata’ that I’m certain is pure improv (I could be wrong) between the trio. The banter is funny either way, but just how funny you find it will depend on how familiar you are with Glover’s singing talents. Because man, the guy can sing and when it’s time to burst into song, out comes Glover’s alter ego, Childish Gambino whose Godlike voice can melt a thousand igloos. There’s also Beyonce who does a fine job with Nala and John Oliver who’s perfect as Zazu.

Jeremy Iron’s version of Scar from the original is unquestionably great. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s is even better. Not only does his voice command your undivided attention, there’s a viciousness to it that will make your stomach squirm. As a result, while you may walk out of the cinema singing ‘Hakuna Matata’, it’s ‘Be Prepared’ that will give you the biggest goosebumps during the film. It’s also the scene with the most grimly beautiful shot — Scar climbing to the top of a rock pile lit only by the moonlight. But a lot of Scar’s greatness also comes from the slightly more interesting way the character is written (but I’ll get to that in a second).

I’ve saved the most interesting of the voices for last. I know, James Earl Jones is Mufasa, much like he is Darth Vader. There’s a regalness to his voice that goes beyond the realm of commanding and into that of hypnotic. Or at least, it was. Don’t get me wrong, James Earl Jones’ voice is still bloody epic, but there’s a tiredness to it now. Here, Mufasa sounds more like a grandfather than a father and that’s probably because James Earl Jones turned 88 this past January. His voice while still charismatic, lacks the energy and augustness of the past. But perhaps, it makes the Mufasa character a tad bit different from the original. An aging but still brave king as opposed to the immovable force.

The Lion King Jon Favreau

2019’s The Lion King is nothing short of spectacular. The story is great, the characters are great, the songs are great (besides ‘Spirit’ which severely lacked oomph for the scene it was accompanying) and the imagery is great. But I still have to ask, what’s the purpose of this film? Why does it need to exist? Yes! It pushes the boundaries of technology — in case I haven’t said it enough, the visuals are a kingly feast for the eyes. But you could’ve pushed the boundaries of technology using an original screenplay filled with original characters. (Note: I’m not talking about the business aspect here, but the “art” aspect).

Sure, there’s no denying that I cried like a baby, which means the storytelling on display is effective and moving. But here’s the thing. I still to this day, also bawl my eyes out watching the original. And the 2019 film didn’t make me tear up more or during different scenes. Mufasa’s death is still as heartbreaking and gut-wrenching as it was 25 years ago. Other *insert tears* moments include the opening track and ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight.’ So, what’s the point? It’s the exact same tasting burger, evoking the exact same emotion, just wrapped in a new and handsome package.

There are some fresh stuff here, though and when they come, they’re utterly intriguing! Take Scar for example, who here is seething with jealously right down to his core. He doesn’t just want the throne, he wants everything that was once his brother’s, including Mufasa’s widowed wife Sarabi. He repeatedly tries to make her his queen — in other words, he wants to have sex with her — despite previously murdering his brother in cold blood and taking his place as king. It’s ugly and dark and I love it. But layered stuff like this is fleeting. We could’ve used more interactions between Mufasa and Scar to establish the full spectrum of their relationship. Perhaps Mufasa wronged Scar in the past? I desperately want to understand Mufasa’s unconditional love for his brother and Scar’s absolute resentment towards his.

Or maybe Nala and Simba didn’t just fall in love after one song? Maybe they don’t fall in love at all (after all, they found the idea of dating their best friend repulsive as kids). Here we’re sorta told that Nala, the lionesses and Zazu are working together behind Scar’s back to… I don’t know. We don’t actually see it. You get the feel that they’re conspiring to overthrow the evil king, but that’s just me filling in too many blanks on my own. I know, none of this was examined in the original either and that’s exactly my point. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King looks new but doesn’t feel new.

Weirdly enough, the biggest compliment I can give the film is also my biggest complaint. Favreau is so hellbent on making his film look like a nature documentary, that it loses some of its personality in the process. The original wasn’t exactly going for realism, which opens the door for interesting visual imagery. ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ and ‘Hakuna Matata’ play out far more excitingly in the animated film because there it’s brimming with creativity and bursting vivid colours and funny visuals. For example, a scene in the original in which Simba jumps on a vine and uses it to fling himself into the lake is reduced to Simba just walking and bobbing to the beat. There Simba has a gorgeous red mane and Scar’s is blacker than the night sky, here, minor aesthetic differences aside, all of them just look like regular lions. It’s purposely uncreative. To counter my argument, I will say that Favreau’s realism does make the important stampede scene even more affecting.

So, my mind is split. On the one end, watching The Lion King (2019) on the big screen was a deeply stirring experience. I cried, I clapped, I laughed, I sang along and I was utterly blown away by the fantastic visuals. I will be lying if I told you I don’t love the movie. The problem is that I don’t love it differently than the original. The problem is that The Lion King still hasn’t convinced me that the Disney animated classics need to be remade.

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