Movie Review: The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King is and will be one of Disney’s greatest animated films of all-time. Taking an epic storyline about a young cub named Simba becoming the lion he was meant to be, it taps into universal themes around family and legacy. Featuring the voice talents of James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and many others, it has been immortalised in our memories. A beloved classic, which continues to bring a tear to the eyes of those who watched it growing up, it was only a matter of time before Disney added to its collection of new live action adaptations. Essentially recreating it, following the same storyline of Simba’s wicked uncle Scar trying to usurp Mufasa’s throne, this version has been undertaken by The Jungle Book and Iron Man director, Jon Favreau.

Reprising his iconic role as Mufasa is James Earl Jones, with new voices for Scar in Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rafiki in John Kani, Seth Rogen as Pumba and BeyoncĂ© as Nala. Favreau did an amazing job in his reimagining of The Jungle Book, bringing the story to life in a darker more accurate representation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic. While Disney’s version of Mowgli and The Jungle Book brought a musical theme, including song and dance with a much more upbeat comedic tone, Favreau turned it on its head offering a more awe-inspiring and even scary rendition. This demonstrated that he was more than up to the task of directing the latest version, which uses extensive animation effects.

Serving as a tribute and a modernisation for today’s standard of filmmaking, Disney have done their utmost to present a film that is every bit as special and nostalgic as the original. Bowing to fans expectations, there must have been quite a bit of pressure going into this endeavour. Having successfully adapted a number of Disney classics already, and acquired companies such as Lucasfilm and Marvel, they have a wheelhouse on entertainment and know how to land at the box office. Capturing pre-existing fan bases is one of the common trends around films of today with reboots, remakes and adaptations such as The Lion King.

“Look pa, top of the world!”

The first thing you’ll notice about the new Lion King is the visuals. It’s as if they blended the realism of White Lion with the story of the 1994 original, going above and beyond what was possible with The Jungle Book. The creatures look real, often with their moving lips or peaks the only thing to differentiate them from nature. The expressions and physical mannerisms have been carefully calibrated to create the most realistic performances possible. At times you look at the screen unable to determine what’s real and what is an illusion signalling a jump in the animation of live animals taking Ang Lee’s tiger from Life of Pi and extending the majesty of those effects across the Pridelands.

The sound is a close second, revising the popular soundtrack to fit into this African world and delivering realistic and smart anthropomorphic adaptations to retain their speech. Being realistic as a nature programme, there’s a slight disconnect between the realism of the animals and the fantasy of them talking. While this was achieved in The Jungle Book, it had a human who could be seen as our translator. Having wild animals talking and adopting modern affectations just seems alien and creates a bit of distance.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor is perfectly cast as Scar, the lion’s design makes him seem more like Mufasa’s father. Too bedraggled to ever be considered a serious threat to the throne, it probably would have suited the film better if they had made him a fallen equal-opposite than a washed out veteran.

The original may even struggle to live up to its reputation, dated in terms of animation by today’s fiercely competitive standards. While it manages to surpass may of the problems you’d expect from creating a live-action version, the tone is an issue in this reimagining. Seth Rogen’s presence may make it more understandable, but the memory of the animated classic seems to be undermined by the type of humour at play. Breaking the fourth wall and wind just seem out of place in this celebrated epic. However, it just seems out of place to be interweaving musical references to Beauty and the Beast.

The voice casting is good, but there are some weak points, most notably Beyonce, who seems to be there for her star quality than her talent. While her name will certainly help draw crowds, her powerful vocals add a freshness to the soundtrack, it’s too much of a distraction with her performance not invisible enough to blend into the tapestry.

The Lion King is a technical masterpiece but just doesn’t match the original for charm and magic. Favreau can be commended for the near-revolutionary visual effects and creating a realistic, breathing version of The Lion King, but its flaws, challenges and distractions keep it just out of reach. The spectacle is mesmerising and majestic, but the visual perfection is undermined by foundational decisions concerning casting, tone and design. It was always going to be a mission impossible feat to better the original thanks to the nostalgia and mythos around it. It’s just disappointing that it focused all its energy on the style and failed to power home with substance over and above the epic tale. It’s watchable, enjoyable and elicits some emotion, but pales in comparison to the original.

The bottom line: Noble