[REVIEW] ‘THE LION KING’ – Be prepared…for a fine reproduction of a masterpiece

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE LION KING

Rated PG, 1 hour 58 minutes

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Starring: James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald GloverBeyoncé, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael KeyJohn Kani, Alfre Woodard, Eric André, John Oliver

Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have married a renewed sense of vigor and vision with clever creativity. Directors like David Lowery (PETE’S DRAGON), Robert Stromberg (MALEFICENT), Jon Favreau (THE JUNGLE BOOK), Bill Condon (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), and Tim Burton (DUMBO) have found creative freedom diverting from a prescribed formula, concocting a new elixir – some going down our proverbial throats more smoothly than others. However, Favreau’s latest offering, a computer-animated, photo-realistic THE LION KING, is the closest carbon copy to the original, which leads to a handful of distracting questions that permeate the viewing experience:

Should original directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff receive co-directing credit with Favreau considering portions appear to be shot-for-shot? Should original screenwriters Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton share the “Screenplay by” title card with Jeff Nathanson since many, if not most scenes are word-for-word? Should the 1994 feature’s artists be given more credit than a “thank you” as their work frequently functions as this iteration’s storyboards?

THE LION KING – Featuring the voices of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala and Donald Glover as Simba, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Long considered a masterpiece, Disney’s THE LION KING is the gold standard by which other animated films have been measured. The timeless story – with roots planted firmly in Shakespearean drama (HAMLET) and, many would argue, Japanese anime (KIMBA THE WHITE LION) – is the benchmark for animation, music and storytelling. It also made a boatload of money for the studio as the highest grossing animated film of all time (at the time). To remake a certified classic mega-hit such as this, with an aesthetic similar to a DisneyNature documentary, not only seems like a big risk, but a gigantic undertaking by a new crop of filmmakers.

Credit dilemmas aside, Favreau has lovingly preserved the 1994 feature’s profound emotional shades and colors. Narratively, he and screenwriter Nathanson are far less concerned about delivering something daring, or wildly dissimilar to what came before. Visually, it’s a different story. Favreau, alongside the visual effects team led by JUNGLE BOOK collaborator Robert Legato, have crafted a complementary feature that stands to reinvigorate our love for the timeless, award-winning masterpiece. Magic and majesty are recaptured to varying degrees of success, but, more importantly, this provides an awe-inducing showcase for visual effects and technology.

The nostalgia button is pressed time and time again, whether it be through seared-into-our-memory dialogue (specifically James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa), or the pristine, sweeping score provided once again by Hans Zimmer. The sights and sounds of the Sahara that transition into Lebo M’s vocals on the hymn-like “Circle of Life” (one of the best opening sequences ever) have been respectfully replicated. Iconic imagery like Simba’s (voiced by JD McCrary) tiny paw stepping into his father’s giant footprint is also preserved. In that moment, the filmmakers conjure the cub’s same trepidation and surprise through a silent, expressive look (one of the few times the characters’ faces convey any emotion). And soon thereafter, during the wildebeest stampede, Simba’s grief and guilt are palpable. Through sound design, they’ve recreated that cavernous echo of sadness as Simba cries out for help and flees into exile once his evil Uncle Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) tricks him into thinking he killed his father.

The filmmakers haven’t strayed too far thematically either. Emphasis continues to be placed on the connectedness of nature – in the eco-system’s bounty and cruelty. Differentiating between pride, arrogance, bravery and courage are character-building lessons for Simba. As he grows from cub to reluctant king, Simba learns responsibility, despite Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (voiced by Seth Rogen) steering him otherwise. Nathanson leans a little more into dissecting the tenets of “Hakuna Matata” – Simba’s new pals’ worry-free philosophy espousing a “meaningless line of existence.” Plus, it’s hard to ignore the timely resonance of a destructive, scheming, truth-manipulating villain commanding impetuous, easily-blinded, distracted followers. 

THE LION KING – Featuring the voices of Florence Kasumba, Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key as the hyenas, and Chiwetal Ejiofor as Scar, Disney’s “The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau. In theaters July 19, 2019. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Some visualizations and song arrangements don’t make the same indelible impact as in the predecessor, as the new format limits what the animators (as directed by Favreau and Legato) can push with this photorealistic approach – which is odd to say given the fact we’re still watching anthropomorphized animals talk and sing. Expressions are muted compared to the traditionally-animated original, which captures a much broader range of fear and excitement, sadness and joy. The flirty frolic of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is set during broad daylight instead of the glowing warmth of dusk. “Be Prepared,” spoke-sung by Ejiofor, doesn’t hold a candle to Jeremy Irons’ version. It’s also “photographed” dull, dark and dingy, instead of feeling like a barn-burning, rousing number. Nevertheless, what helps to counteract the sting of those lessened expectations are Beyoncé’s solo contribution “Shine,” which isn’t a performance number but slips easily into the soundtrack, and the Disney Easter Egg number (that probably won’t surprise anyone who’s seen the Broadway show).

Though the voice cast is all-around solid, it’s the supporting characters who steal the show. They make the roles their own in concert with the visual effects mingling the actors’ mannerisms with the animals’ intrinsic behavior. Rogen and Eichner are a hilarious hoot, playing off of each other in the same vein as the role’s originators (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella). John Oliver’s hornbill Zazu delivers the morning report with as much verve and zest as he does on his HBO news-themed program. But it’s Florence Kasumba as hyena pack leader Shenzi who earns this film’s MVP title. Her Eartha Kitt-like ferocity makes for a magnetic and intimidating presence through the power of her vocal timbre.

While the filmmakers have built out the picture to include Nala’s (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph in her younger years, by Beyoncé as an adult) display of tenacity, and added further padding to sequences like royal shaman Rafiki (voiced by John Kahni) catching wind that Simba is still alive, these alterations are slight when other animation adaptations have braved bolder updates.

Grade: B-

THE LION KING opens on July 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is an OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.