The Lion King is good because the original animated movie was great, though it does feature stunning CGI that Disney is clearly excited to show off.
The latest of Disney's live-action reimaginings of films from its animated classics vault isn't actually a live-action movie at all, but the hyper-realistic CGI remake of The Lion King. In recent years, Walt Disney Studios has started taking its most beloved animated movies and translating them to live-action, sometimes making major changes and other times sticking as close to the original as possible. Directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed another CGI-heavy Disney reimagining in 2016's The Jungle Book, The Lion King falls into the latter category of remaining true to the original 1994 animated movie. The Lion King is good because the original animated movie was great, though it does feature stunning CGI that Disney is clearly excited to show off.
The Lion King follows young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover) who is raised as prince of the Pride Lands and expected to become king after his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) as his queen. But Mufasa's brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots with the lions' enemies, the hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre), to take over the Pride Lands. To execute his coup, Scar kills Mufasa and convinces Simba it was his fault, but the hyenas fail to kill Simba like they're meant to. Instead, Simba runs away and is taken in by Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and grows up with them far removed from the Pride Lands. However, Simba's past and his responsibilities catch up with him, and he realizes he must return home to make things right.
Directed by Favreau from a script by Jeff Nathanson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), The Lion King is a fairly strict remake of the original 1994 movie. Because the films were crafted using animation and CGI, the major differences between the two largely account for the styles in which they were created. While the 1994 film used unrealistic, stylized animation, Favreau's Lion King focuses heavily on realistic portrayals of its animal characters, at times to its own detriment. There's only so much a warthog or a meerkat or a lion can physically do; they can't convey emotion the way human faces do, they don't actually speak English and they can't perform wildly extravagant musical numbers. Instead, Favreau and his team supplant animal expressions and mannerisms on the characters - like Timon agitatedly standing up in the manner of real meerkats - making them more real, but causing them all to feel much more flat in the process. The spectacle of the movie stems from the feat of creating hyper-realistic animals, rather than anything the animals actually do.
As a result, the animals of this Lion King are more animal than human, which creates an emotional distance that must be bridged by other aspects of the film, and which largely falls on the shoulders of the voice actors. Because Disney and Favreau assembled an outstanding cast, they help to bring these animal characters to life with a great deal of humanity. McCrary shines as young Simba, embodying the lion cub's arrogance and devastation in equal measure. But with much of the movie focusing on Simba's childhood, it's difficult not to feel as if Disney wasted the voice talents of Glover - and Knowles-Carter (though they do sing "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" together). Eichner, Rogen and John Oliver are well-suited to their roles of Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu, respectively, and they're tasked with much of the updated, more modern comedy in The Lion King, which works well enough. Ejiofor is good, but not particularly memorable as Scar, while Jones again embodies the regal and wise Mufasa with gravitas.
One thing The Lion King has going for it in spades is sheer spectacle in its CGI renderings of the animals. Disney proved they could animate hyper-realistic animals with The Jungle Book, and they take it a step further by constructing the entire cast of The Lion King with incredibly realistic CGI. Certainly, it's worth marveling at just what Disney has accomplished with the film, even if certain scenes come across as overlong sequences of the studio simply showing off. Much of the additional 30 minutes to The Lion King's runtime is CGI spectacle, which may work for those coming to see the movie for that very reason, but comes off as braggadocious to those irritated by these particular sequences slowing down the overall pace of the movie. If viewers are looking for a movie worth splurging on IMAX this summer, The Lion King is undoubtedly it.
Ultimately, The Lion King is only as good as it is because it's working off the excellent 1994 animated version; the story, much of the script and the majority of the music all come from Disney's previous film. The studio and Favreau put a more realistic spin on the animal characters, but the difference isn't necessarily better. It's simply a different style that has its own advantages, as with the stunning CGI animals, and disadvantages, like the restrictions of reality taking away some of the magic of the premise. Thankfully, the story of The Lion King is good enough to transcend mediums. Still, the retelling is sure to strike an emotional chord with those that grew up watching Disney's animated original, and this latest live-action reimagining seems bound for success thanks to a mixture of nostalgia and spectacle. So while Disney's The Lion King reimagining is a perfectly enjoyable moviegoing experience, it may leave some viewers wanting more (or wanting to watch the animated classic instead).
The Lion King starts playing in U.S. theaters Thursday July 18th. It is 118 minutes long and is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.
- The Lion King (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019