Continuing Disney’s tradition of remaking animated classics in live-action, Jon Favreau’s 2019 iteration of 1994 classic The Lion King offers very little above the original, beyond visual spectacle.
The Lion King
Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones
For the uninitiated, The Lion King is based upon the 1994 animated Disney classic of the same name. Essentially a retelling of Hamlet on the African savannah, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, a lion cub who is the heir to the Pride Lands. He is to succeed his father, Mufasa. However, his villainous uncle Scar murders Mufasa and manipulates Simba into believing that it was his fault, leading to Simba fleeing the Pride Lands into exile. In his absence, Scar gives preference to the hyenas over the native lions, leaving the remaining lions sorely in need of Simba’s return, though they believe him, too, to be dead.
The Lion King truly is a testament to the sheer power of computing technology. Every single shot in this movie – with the exception of the very opening – is entirely created digitally; a fact that is doubly impressive when this does not register when watching it on screen. In fact, you would be forgiven for believing that Disney, with its seemingly endless resources and ingenuity, had trained actual lions to lipsync to Beyoncé on the African plains. Every detail has been meticulously planned out, to the most minute details such that every fibre of fur and shape of whisker looks real enough to touch. Small billows of dust rise up as the animals move around the environment, and there has even been enough thought as to give the “camera” (which, by the way, does not exist) seeming weight as it traverses the landscape.
However, what The Lion King gains in photorealism and stunning imagery, which is indeed a testament not just to the graphic effects but also that of the director, Jon Favreau, it loses something essential and unquantifiable. It loses its heart. Sure, the original 1994 film was 2-dimensional, but what it lacked in visual sophistication, it made up for with the emotional weight of its story. While the lions here look gorgeous and realistic, they are not able to show human-levels of emotion.
Yet, this stands in stark contrast to the talented cast who have been used to voice each of these characters. It is jarring to hear dialogue delivered with such emotional heft and not see this translate upon the characters’ faces. Somewhere along the line it appears that there has been a tradeoff between photorealism and being able to have three-dimensional characterisation. In a way, this almost removes the viewer from the experience in a way that the original did not do, and it makes us feel more detached from the story of these lions, who seem to be somewhat lifeless, despite their eerily realistic movements. It is not helped that, with the somewhat unnatural movement of the lion’s mouths compared to the dialogue, it’s sometimes difficult to shake the image of Beyoncé when hearing her read Nala’s lines, instead of just interpreting it as Nala’s voice.
The cast deliver commendable performances, however. Donald Glover is delightful as Simba, adding something new and delightfully playful to the role and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is similarly commanding as Nala. John Oliver delivers a commendable performance as Zazu, though he cannot quite reach the heights of Rowan Atkinson’s iteration. Scar is once again portrayed as villainous and, for some reason, British (which always begs the question as to why any of them even have American accents when they are lions in Africa, but there we go) by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and is as menacing and delightfully camp as ever. Returning from the original voice cast, James Earl Jones is as iconic as ever in the role of Mufasa. A major change comes in the form of Timon and Pumbaa, played by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who deliver an entirely different form of stylised comedy from their predecessors, which is unfamiliar but equally delightful, and the film really perks up with their presence within it. One thing sorely lacking and noticeable in this adaptation, however, is the absence of the same hyenas that were in the original film. I didn’t realise how much they sold those moments until they were not there.
The score of The Lion King, composed by Hans Zimmer, is almost as big of a star as the characters themselves. Similarly, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are preserved, though the more theatrical rendition of Be Prepared is stripped back in favour of a more menacing fare, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, while delightful, fails to reach the heights of the original. It feels more like a masterclass in how many notes Beyoncé can perform on just one word, which becomes somewhat distracting when you have to watch a lion do a vocal run. Furthermore, in a song called Can You Feel the Love Tonight, I would have expected a little more in the way of moonlit imagery. As it happens, watching two emotionless lions fall in love packs much less of a punch than expected. Additionally, some of the most stirring sequences, such as Simba bounding across the desert back towards Pride Rock to fulfil his destiny, while it used to be epically soundtracked by Hans Zimmer, is now instead replaced by a slightly desperate Oscar-attempt in the form of new Beyoncé song Spirit which is completely tonally inappropriate for the moment.
To summarise, The Lion King is indeed commendable in the mammoth task that it completed so successfully, it is in fact easy not to notice. However, through making CGI lions so realistic, it lost a lot of the spirit of the original and renders the emotive aspects of the story somewhat limp in comparison. I cannot help but feel like an approach as depicted in the video below might have been more appropriate and resonated more with audiences.