The themes of The Lion King still have the same power, despite the visual revamp meaning some of the emotion is lost along the way.
A number of recent Disney releases, ostensibly aimed at kids, have also managed to pull in a significantly large older audience as well. After all, these films, prime examples being Pixar’s Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, are sequels to movies that many of us grew up with. For pure nostalgia purposes, it’s understandable why audiences would want to revisit these familiar worlds and the characters of their childhoods.
The Lion King, a remake of the traditionally animated epic from 1994, is a similar case of repackaged nostalgia. This reimagining gives younger viewers the chance to experience the familiar story of Simba, the lion prince of the Pride Lands. It’s the same narrative, rich in emotion, grandeur and a smattering of laughs, sure to rekindle a fondness for and desire to rewatch the original. There’s no need to look too much into the story as it’s practically the same as before, although the Shakespearean themes of family, heritage and responsibility in this emotional roller coaster – regardless of it being a remake – are still powerful.
One of the main draws of The Lion King is its A-list voice cast ensemble, shamelessly used to market the film, but hey, it gets people into the cinema. Most of the actors do a good job, with Donald Glover, popularly known by his stage name Childish Gambino, giving Simba a playful nature though able to be serious when needed. James Earl Jones reprises the iconic role of Mufasa, never failing to impress.
Unfortunately, not all of the voices feel as natural. Most noticeably, John Oliver as Zazu feels clunky and generally out of place. The same goes for Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, but perhaps that’s simply because it’s impossible to disassociate Rogen’s voice from other media that he’s starred in. That’s always the risk of getting well-known performers to do voice acting.
Beyoncé, in contrast, is one of the best things about the film as Nala, right up there with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s own take on Scar. Whilst there’s much to enjoy with Jeremy Irons’ camp and cunning Scar in the original, Ejiofor’s booming voice makes for a terrifying villain who utterly commands any scene he’s in, especially towards the climax.
The other main attraction here is the visuals, with the classic hand-drawn style replaced by photorealistic animation that has clumsily been labelled as ‘live-action’ in some quarters. The look and feel of the animation is truly breathtaking, bringing the world of the Pride Lands to astonishing life. Honestly, following a small mouse scurrying around the grass in an early scene, you half-expect David Attenborough’s voice to start narrating the creature’s journey. The action scenes are fantastic too, offered a visceral authenticity in this new mode.
Yet, one of the greatest strengths of The Lion King is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The photorealistic nature of the animals means that the emotional core of the story is lost. Whilst Donald Glover and Beyoncé perform a beautiful rendition of ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, there’s not much on screen to give the accompanying montage any emotion – other than the cold, dead eyes of Simba and Nala. It’s a necessary constraint of the grounded ambitions of the film, as a realistic-looking lion should probably act like one, but it’s still something that holds it back. Where the toning down does work, however, is with some of the other song montages; the originals, complete with animal pyramids and goose-stepping hyenas, are truly bizarre and so the change there is welcome.
When The Lion King doesn’t want you to have a tear in your eye, it wants you to be laughing. With comedic talents Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as loveable duo Timon and Pumbaa, there was hope. Sadly, these scenes tend to outstay their welcome, eventually killing any semblance of a good joke. Some of the beats that work so well in the original are milked for time to the point that they are completely ruined. Gone is much of the visual comedy, whilst other duo, hyenas Azizi and Kamari (Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key), are even less amusing – not a single joke of theirs lands.
While the writing stutters in this department, this is still The Lion King. It remains a wonderful story with a universal appeal, which is something the changes in animation or voice cast are unable to change.
The Lion King (2019), directed by Jon Favreau, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate PG.