The Lion King
This photorealistic remake looks astonishing and remains faithful to the original, but isn't completely convincing.
July 16, 2019
Picture this: as gorgeously detailed nature documentary footage plays, an exceptional cast of big-name actors lend their voices to prowling lions. In addition to vocalising the animals' thoughts and feelings, the human-uttered dialogue gives the majestic big cats an epic story, charting the ups and downs of a young cub born to the king and queen of the pride. The tale that follows combines parts of Hamlet, Star Wars and Kimba the White Lion, complete with love, loss, courage, threats, rebellion and father-son issues. It features witty one-liners and catchy songs, plus antics involving hyenas, meerkats, warthogs, hornbills and mandrills. But, even as the famous tones, engaging emotional beats, amusing gags, rousing music and lively array of critters all work their magic, something seems a little out of place — namely, the rendering of all of the above with such lifelike visuals.
That's The Lion King circa 2019 in a nutshell. Using technology that has only improved since he turned The Jungle Book into a naturalistic spectacle three years ago, filmmaker Jon Favreau remakes another of Disney's cartoon hits with this different kind of animated wizardry. Here, unlike in his adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic text, there's no visible trace of humanity — and that just might make all the difference. Such an absence is true to The Lion King's source material, obviously, but without a character such as Mowgli scampering around, this special effects onslaught lacks an anchor. The film couldn't look more realistic, and yet it never feels real. While audiences have long become accustomed to getting swept away by Hollywood's trickery — especially since digital capabilities began bringing extraordinary sights to the screen — The Lion King can't quite manage the feat.
Narrative-wise, anyone familiar with the 1994 movie knows what's in store. This version might credit a different writer, with Jeff Nathanson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) adapting the original screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, but it has really just been given a new coat of CGI paint. As initially presented to the animal kingdom in an awe-inspiring ceremony, young Simba (JD McCrary) is fated to follow in his father Mufasa's (James Earl Jones) regal paw prints, much to the dismay of the latter's scowling, scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). And so, a plot is hatched. Instead of preparing for his destiny with help from his mother (Alfre Woodard) and best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph as a cub, Beyonce once she's grown), Simba is tricked into becoming an outcast. He runs free with pint-sized pals Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and adopts their carefree attitude. As an adult lion (now voiced by Donald Glover), he's eventually forced to reassess his choices, as well as his role and place in the Pridelands.
The cynical might say that this return to The Lion King lacks humanity behind-the-scenes, too, given all that the surefire box office hit represents. Disney keeps turning its animated back-catalogue into live-action fare — or photorealistic ones in this case — with a clear plan in mind: tap into nostalgia, then profit. Still, even knowing where it stands in the huge entertainment behemoth's filmmaking assembly line, the movie doesn't lack feeling. It's clearly the result of great affection and attention to detail, ensuring that its animals really do look like they're simply strutting through the savannah. Astutely chosen cast members such as the returning Jones, the melodic Glover, and the hilarious Eichner and Rogen all invest their four-legged alter-egos with resounding emotion. Coming back to the material that originally won him an Oscar, composer Hans Zimmer gives the story another stirring score, while Elton John and Tim Rice's reused tunes all hit the same stirring marks as they once again muse about love and life.
Indeed, you can almost see the human fingerprints on the film, including in its gently moving tufts of lion fur, sweeping plains and flowering greenery — or the genuine love and care that went into them, to be more accurate. That said, viewers also bear witness as one of the most beloved movies of the past quarter-century is transformed into a very expensive and true-to-life cat video. That's no knock on feline clips or nature docos. Cooing over a cute mouser is one of life's simplest pleasures, and marvelling at the splendour of the natural world is one of its great privileges. But, watching The Lion King, it's impossible to get completely lost in any of these joys. Or, for that matter, to surrender to the slavishly faithful story or undeniably impressive visuals, which work well separately and yet don't convincingly fit together.
Perhaps it isn't by accident that Timon and Pumbaa steal the show as they frolic through the film's frames, with an ad-libbing Eichner and Rogen proving the picture's standouts (sorry, Beyonce fans). It isn't new, but the wisecracking comic duo do espouse a fitting motto, and one that Disney probably hopes viewers truly take to heart this time around. It's possible to say "hakuna matata" to The Lion King redux, and feel the love for its highlights without falling tail over paws for the end product. Alas, it's harder to shake the sensation that it doesn't convincingly take its place in the cinematic circle of life. That opening, though, as recreated nearly frame-by-frame in all of its electrifying glory — it's a complete and utter wonder, albeit one that the rest of the movie can't manage to match.