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Review: The Lion King

July 18, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

There is a huge market for nostalgia these days, and this is a big part of what is fuelling Disney’s surge of live action remakes over the past few years, many of which have proven to be hugely popular with audiences. The studio most recently found financial success with Aladdin, an alright film that failed to fully recapture the magic of its classic animated counterpart, yet still became a humongous hit at the box office.

But even within the context of these films, it’s hard to think of any recent movie that is more built around nostalgia than The Lion King, director Jon Favreau’s photorealistic computer generated remake of the studio’s 1994 hand drawn classic, which is so lifelike in its appearance that it’s being sold as live action.

This is not to say that the film is bad or should be written off entirely. In fact, I actually enjoyed watching it, and the visuals themselves are undeniably spectacular. But it also follows the original so closely, often shot by shot and word for word, that it transcends being a remake and instead feels like a direct copy. This is not so much a reimagining of the original, as much as it is a duplicate of it with updated visuals and a mostly new cast. There are a few new things that have been added, mainly to flesh out the film from around an hour and a half to about two hours, but the bulk of it remains the same. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s entertaining, but also feels a bit… unnecessary.

The story is identical. A son, Simba (JD McCrary), is born to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), and is heir to the kingdom of Pride Rock. But Simba’s Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills his brother Mufasa so he can take over the throne, and Simba goes away to live in exile, convinced that his father’s death in a wildebeest stampede was his fault. It’s here that Simba meets Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a meerkat and warthog who help him come of age living a carefree life in the jungle. But as an adult, Simba (Donald Glover) must reunite with his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé) in order to take back the throne.

It would be easy to cynically dismiss the 2019 version of The Lion King as little more than a cash grab, but a ton of artists have also put a lot of work into it, and I must give credit where credit is due. They have done an absolutely magnificent and downright groundbreaking job bringing it to the screen. The visuals are astounding, often appearing photorealistic despite the fact that every thing we see on screen was created digitally. While there are a few brief “uncanny valley” moments, The Lion King also serves as a major leap forward in terms of computer animation, and for that the film is a game-changer.

This is similar to the animation style that was used in Favreau’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, but that film was done using motion capture and featured a human lead, where as this one is completely animated. Favreau does a good job of directing the film, working closely with famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. They have added in a few new flourishes to really show off this cutting edge digital technology they are working with, including a visually impressive sequence in which a bit of Simba’s mane floats across the Serengeti, being used for different purposes and symbolizing the “circle of life.”

The celebrity voice cast also gives it their all. Because this is a musical, it helps to have talented artists like Glover and Beyoncé involved in the film. Rogen and Eichner steal the show as Timon and Pumbaa, with the delightful banter between them fuelling further speculation that they are a gay couple. Their insistence that the “circle of life” is actually a “meaningless line of indifference” provides one of the most amusing moments. Ejiofor has some of the biggest shoes to fill, taking over from Jeremy Irons, but he rises to the challenge and makes a formidable villain. The cast is rounded out by John Oliver as the worrisome royal bird Zazu; John Kani as the wise Rafiki; and Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André and Florence Kasumba as Scar’s trio of starving, sycophantic hyenas.

The Elton John and Tim Rice songs that were such a beloved part of the original remain mostly the same, and the new cast of performers does justice to them. It’s hard not to feel a stir of emotion when Beyoncé’s voice comes in on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and the singer also adds a new song to the film, the gospel-infused “Spirit” which plays over a montage leading to the third act. The iconic “Circle of Life” opening has been recreated seamlessly, and there is something cool about seeing it with what look like the visuals of a nature documentary. The number that has been changed the most is “Be Prepared,” which is largely pared back from the gigantic production number that it became in the original. Hans Zimmer also returns to build upon his original musical score.

This is a bit of a hard film to review, because on the one hand it’s very entertaining to watch, and often stunning as a visual experience. But on the other hand, it also feels like a direct copy of an even better film. This remake isn’t able to replace or surpass its predecessor. The original had a certain charm to it that isn’t quite replicated here, and a big part of that comes from the fact that it’s easier to tell a story about anthropomorphic lions when you have more stylized animals. I think the emotion was also stronger in the original for this very reason.

I was a fan of Favreau’s The Jungle Book, but that film served as more of a new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story, rather than a straight up remake of the animated film. Favreau’s The Lion King doesn’t really distinguish as much of its own identity. It’s enjoyable and engaging because this story is enjoyable and engaging, which we already knew from the original film. It’s ultimately the cinematic equivalent of a tribute act, doing a decent job of delivering all of the hits you want and expect, except all gussied up in a new package for modern audiences. But as far as these things go, it’s pretty good, and if you’re going to see it, it’s worth seeing on the big screen for the visuals.

The Lion King opens tonight in theatres across Canada.

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