The Lion King (2019) | Jon Favreau | July 19, 2019
Out of all the animated classics that Disney has reimagined for the big screen with their recent slate of live-action remakes (including this year’s Aladdin and Dumbo), none have been saddled with the lofty expectations that come with The Lion King. I may be speaking for myself, but it feels as though the original The Lion King that came out in 1994 is one of Disney’s trademark releases and is held to a higher standard by many who grew up in that decade. Many of us are in the midst of adulthood, and while we’re both curious and excited to see what director Jon Favreau brings to this new iteration of the film, there is also equal trepidation about seeing such a beloved film re-hashed for seemingly no other reason than another Disney cash grab.
Jon Favreau earned our trust after the fine work he did with the 2016 live-action The Jungle Book, which is arguably the finest live-action Disney adaptation film to date. Would he be able to bring the same magic to The Lion King, which is a much stronger animated work and one that would be hard to find new things to bring to the mix to both make it new enough to warrant its existence while also staying true to the original source material? It’s a tricky balance and one that Favreau mostly succeeds with here.
While some diehards will argue that there’s no need to venture to the theater to see this version of the film when you have the original in physical and digital forms, one look at the breathtaking CGI that Favreau and his talented team of visual artists have rendered here is a real mindblowing accomplishment. It deserves to be seen on the big screen where viewers can soak up all of the fine details that come to life again in breathtaking fashion.
In terms of the story, it’s more or less what you expected from a live-action retelling of The Lion King. Running 2 hours – 30 minutes longer than the original – the film is still more or less a shot for shot remake, with a few new flourishes and some extended scenes that neither add or take away from the viewing experience. Although, ultimately, less is more; there’s a reason that so many of these Disney classics clock in at about 90 minutes. Granted, Favreau has a tough task of finding new ways to bring the story to life that improve on what came before while simultaneously not straying too far from the formula and alienating those diehard viewers.
The voice cast is an astonishing collection of actors and comedians – basically a who’s who of 2019 talent, not counting the decision to bring back James Earl Jones to reprise his role as Mufasa. It’s impossible to replace Jones, and those responsible for the casting know as much. While the true standouts of the voice cast ended up being the comedians – notably Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen stealing the show as Timon and Pumbaa – completely living up to the weighty expectations that come with their beloved animated counterparts and providing all of the film’s well-earned laughs. Equally charming is John Oliver as Zazu, and JD McCrary and Us‘ Shahadi Wright Joseph as Young Simba and Nala, respectively. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an effective Scar and it’s just great to hear James Earl Jones once again voice Mufasa. Donald Glover and Beyoncé are fine as the older versions of Simba and Nala but feel somewhat underused, lacking the real oomph that you’d expect from two big names such as theirs.
While all the actors ultimately do a commendable job, it’s hard to not notice who is doing the voice acting and think of the talent behind the talking animal rather than associating their voice anew with the character. One of the more jarring new aspects is the Hyenas, who undergo some demeanor changes, along with the dynamic of the main trio (voiced by Toy Story 4‘s Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, and Black Panther‘s Florence Kasumba). While the animation style allowed the creators to demonstrate the emotions of the lions and other animals with ease, as beautiful as the CGI is, it is tough to emote the lions ironically because they look all too real. It seems like a small grievance, but it becomes a bit of an issue when you’re spending 2 hours with these characters and the emotional resonance isn’t there in the same way.
With that said, there are too many beautiful and heartfelt moments from this classic story for Favreau not to be able to re-create, and that he does. As pleasant as it is to see scenes like the Pride Rock opening reimagined in such a photorealistic way, you often feel a bit at arm’s length the entire time, and it never feels nearly as real as it did through animation.
On a technical level, Favreau and his team pull off some wonderous feats bringing this world to life in such a realistic way. But the bleeding heart and soul of this story never resonate in the same fashion as the original and fail to highlight enough new elements within the original film’s DNA to bring the story to life in a new way that land with the same powerful emotional magic feeling. The Lion King is meant to be experienced on the big screen with those closest to you, and the experience of it all is worth the price of admission. This version may very well become a childhood staple for a new generation as the animated original was to mine. While still an entertaining effort that dazzles on a technical front, there’s no other reason to stray from the original, which still stands as the far superior creature in the entertainment food chain.