There has been a great deal said about “The Lion King,” even before it was released. The recent wave of live-action Disney remakes has sparked some lively debate among filmgoers, who frequently question their necessity, merit and reason for existing.
While recent releases such as “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” add some new elements to their stories (to varying degrees of success), “The Lion King” approaches things differently. The 1994 original gave us a story that is pretty much perfect to begin with, so why remake this film at all? What could director Jon Favreau and his team possibly add to this film to justify its existence?
The answer, as it turns out, is not a lot. This version of “The Lion King” offers little to nothing in the way of new story beats. And yet, I still found it to be just as moving, epic and infectious as the original. Sure, it may lack the vibrant colors and expressions of the hand-drawn classic, but there is much more to this remake than their initially seems to be, and it’s quite worthy of a viewing to see what I mean.
Most of you are likely familiar with this film’s plot, but in the off chance that you aren’t, here’s a quick rundown. The movie follows Simba (JD McCrary), a young lion cub who is set to one day be king and succeed his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). After a terrible tragedy, Simba must find his place in a new community and the circle of life.
I want to address the story up front, because it was one of my two major interests with this remake. Like I said earlier, this film follows the 1994 original beat for beat, with almost nothing in the way of deviation. For many, this will be a point of contention: After all, if it doesn’t offer anything new to say, why have it say anything at all? I feel, however, that there is a much simpler angle to the film’s story: If it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.
The original “The Lion King” is an indisputable classic in the Disney catalog, with a story as iconic as its music. To alienate or change a tale so beloved would have been foolish, and Favreau and his team seem to realize that. Instead of messing with one element of the movie that is sure to work, they focus on another that has proved more divisive: the animation.
Allow me to start by saying this: “The Lion King” is a technical marvel and a massive achievement in computer animation. The animals, landscapes and environmental effects are completely photorealistic, and they floored me from the opening scene. The billing of this film as live-action, then, becomes tricky to navigate. Just because the animals look real does not make them real. In my opinion, this is an animated feature — without a doubt. The fact that it manages to create such lifelike images from CGI is something to be commended, as long as it is commended in the proper way.
The biggest adjustment that comes with the animation is the characters speaking. As we’re all aware, animals don’t talk like people do; to present them as doing so would take some getting used to, and it does. The animals talking like humans is jarring and pretty goofy at first, but once you get over that hump and accept it, it becomes easier to watch. The film also finds ways to avoid showing characters speaking when it can to minimize the disconnect, which I found clever and practical.
Speaking of… speaking, I found the voice work here to be uniformly strong, with one sizable exception (which I’ll get to in a moment). As the two voices of Simba, McCrary and Donald Glover feel perfect. Both perfectly imbue the character with the necessary playfulness, and Glover especially does a great job of giving Simba a palpable sense of guilt in the film’s back half. As the only returning talent, James Earl Jones brings the goods once again as Mufasa, giving us an even wiser sounding king than in the original.
There are three major standouts in the film, the first of which is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, with a truly menacing performance that easily is on par with Jeremy Irons’s classic version. I really can’t stress how scary Scar is in this movie; it’s terrific. The other standouts, and easily the highlights of the film, are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively. The duo are hilarious and absolutely steal every scene they’re in. The meta sense of humor they are given helps them really connect with the audience, and I can’t commend them enough for their timing and delivery.
However, I cannot commend Beyoncé and her performance as Nala, which falls so flat and rings so false. There were a few serious moments where her readings of certain lines pulled me out of the action. In a voice cast so talented, so stacked with famous personalities, it’s a shame that such a major character falls so short.
Beyoncé can be commended for her contributions to the film’s soundtrack, which I suspect was the true purpose for her casting. As a whole, the music of this movie stands high above the rest of the Disney catalog, and the new versions of these classic songs are absolutely done justice. The songs are all just as good as you remember, and they’re performed here with plenty of vigor and playfulness. Updated versions of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Be Prepared” and “Hakuna Matata” especially hit just the right notes. Hans Zimmer’s iconic score is also just as perfect here as it was 25 years ago. It really is among his best work.
There is a lot to love in the new “The Lion King.” While characters’ facial animations can be bizarre and a bit off, they still present emotion and personality in subtle ways. Likewise, the film has a very strong hold on visual storytelling thanks to Favreau’s assured direction. There’s a wordless sequence in the middle of the film that absolutely nails the idea of the circle of life, and it’s a high point in the movie. I wish there were more scenes like it.
Favreau has updated a classic, with a great deal of reverence and care taken to preserve one of animation’s best stories. The risks he takes are aesthetic and visual, not plot-driven like other remakes in the Disney catalog. Those risks turn out to be for the best, and I wish the other reimaginings shared his vision. Yes, this is absolutely the same “The Lion King” we know and love. That’s a thing to be celebrated, not condemned, however. With this new presentation of an old favorite, we have been given one of the most ambitious Disney remakes yet. It takes plenty of risks, just not in the way we thought it might. It isn’t perfect, and it will never replace the original, but it was never meant to. And in time, it will find its place in the circle of life.
Are you watching the new film or sticking to the 1994 version? Let us know! “The Lion King” is now playing in theatres.
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Jeff is a writer, film critic, and chocolate milk enthusiast from Connecticut currently based in Charlotte, NC. When he’s not at the movies, he enjoys visiting breweries, hiking, writing fiction, gaming, and watching baseball. Go Sox!