Film Review: The Lion King

Director Jon Favreau reimagines Simba's journey from outcast cub to rightful king of the Pride Lands in a photorealistic remake of a Disney classic that is beautifully animated and includes a superb soundtrack but lacks the magic and emotion of the original animated movie.

By: Fazielah Williams
Posted: 8 August 2019
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


The Lion King posterIn another raid of Disney's classics vault, director Jon Favreau gives one of the company's most successful and popular animated musicals, The Lion King, a photorealistic CGI remake featuring a star-studded cast voiced by Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, John Kani as Rafiki, John Oliver as Zazu, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, Billy Eichner as Timon, and James Earl Jones, who reprises his role as Mufasa from the original.

As with the live-action remake of Aladdin, I had high expectations for The Lion King and, while I enjoyed it visually, sang along to all of the well-known hits (25 years later and "The Circle Of Life", composed by South African producer Lebo M and updated for this 2019 version, still gives me goosebumps!) and cheered for the archetypal tale of good triumphing over evil, I have quite a few reservations about the overall movie.

Glover brings a youthful and hip tone to an adult Simba the lion and really embodies the no worries philosophy encouraged by Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, two animal outcasts living a carefree life in an oasis. At times, though, Glover slips into sounding far too much like original Simba actor Matthew Broderick. While an homage to him is sweet, it is important to bring a fresh take on the character.

Young Simba, young Nala, and Zazu in The Lion King

I am expecting to feel the full ire of the Beyhive, as Beyoncé's fandom is called, for my opinion of her voice acting, which overpowered the character of Nala, a female lion in the pride who is Simba's best friend and, later, love interest. In stark contrast to Moira Kelly, who voiced the character in the original film and gave life to Nala, Beyoncé played Beyoncé and constantly sounded as if she was one step away from calling her "ladies" to get "in formation" - a popular call to action in her bestselling musical hits.

Favreau and the writers expanded Nala's role, drawing on Broadway's The Lion King musical, which gives the character more of a fighting spirit, agency in affecting change within the plot by having her leave the starving pack, a consequence of which results in her finding Simba, who she talks some sense into before helping him defeat Scar by leading an attack on the hyenas. Despite having more material to work with than Kelly ever did, Beyoncé still fails to fully embody Nala and portray her as the glue that keeps the pack together.

Bearing this in mind, it's no surprise then that the love ballad "Can You Feel The Love Tonight", which was written by Elton John for the original and performed in this remake by Beyoncé and Glover, who himself performs professionally under the pseudonym Childish Gambino, fails to convey the blossoming romantic relationship between the characters. Beyoncé stamps her multiple award winning voice all over the duet and drowns out Glover's voice.

Young Simba, Pumbaa, and Timon in The Lion King

Eichner and Rogen effortlessly fill the paw prints of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella - the actors who originated the roles of Timon and Pumbaa in the 1994 version of the film - and especially excel with their improvised lines (an exchange between the two, after Simba riffs "Hakuna Matata", is especially hilarious). Meanwhile, no one plays Mufasa, Simba's father and the king of the Pride Lands, like James Earl Jones does and even 25 years after the original, now at the ripe old age of 88, Jones is pitch perfect.

I also immensely enjoyed Kani's turn as Rafiki, a mandrill shaman and advisor in the Pride Lands, who spoke all his lines - many of which were not in English, unlike the lines spoken by every other character - in his own accent, which helped to ground the movie in Africa because, as with Aladdin, the actors retained their Western accents.

Rafiki in The Lion King

For this computer-animated remake the film-makers constructed all the sets in a virtual environment to help with the crafting of traditional filmmaking techniques, such as camera angles; filmed the actors acting out the roles together in a special voice-acting stage setup in order to capture their interactions, expressions, and movements for the animators to reference; and created photorealistic animals, birds, and environments. One would think that this then means that the expressions of the corresponding animal characters would be fully realised anthropomorphically, but it does not.

The film-makers decided to restrict the animals' facial expressions and mouth movements to actual expressions and movements that animals would be able to make in real life. This was a terrible stylistic choice as they look stiff, expressionless, and sometimes incredibly awkward and it comes across as if the audio track is badly synchronised to mouths being operated by a bad puppeteer. One of the original film's most important aspects was the incredibly expressive animation. That's all been thrown away. Key emotional scenes in this remake now fall completely flat.

Scar in The Lion King

Take, for example, that iconic Mufasa scene in the original animation, which had Nineties kids and their parents bawling their eyes out, and the immediate next scene in which Scar, Mufasa's brother and the story's antagonist, chases Simba from the Pride Lands: young Simba actor JD McCrary's voice is perfect as he begs "Dad, get up!" but because the cub's face barely moves it doesn't convey the necessary heartbreaking emotions and the viewer is left feeling nothing. Likewise, Scar is neither menacing nor scary and actually looks quite bored, which really is an injustice to Ejiofor's vocal delivery.

By opting for photorealism, as well as movement realism, for this movie so much of the Disney animation magic is lost. For me, the original scenes in which Simba's fur and scent are carried to Rafiki on a magical breeze and Mufasa appears as a spirit guide in the clouds were captivating. In this version these scenes are replaced with Simba's fur being stuck in camel dung that is carried to Rafiki by dung beetles and ants and we only hear Jones' booming voice, backed by grey skies.

The realism effect is felt in the opening scene too, which, while offering the viewer an accurate portrayal of a sunrise on the savanna, loses the magic of the storytelling. This, in combination with the far too abundant photorealistic animals behaving in a way that animals would not in real life and the performance of "The Circle Of Life" that is unfortunately lacking the energy of the version in the original, make the scene feel flat.

 in The Lion King

Someone on Twitter described The Lion King remake as being like a National Geographic video with a great soundtrack and, sadly, I think that aptly describes this movie.

The Lion King was written by Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), based on Disney's 1994 animated film of the same name, was directed by Jon Favreau, and stars Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and James Earl Jones.

The press screening was courtesy of Disney. Rating


Tags: Screen, Speculative Fiction

These videos do not contain spoilers.

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