Long Live “The Lion King” – Movie Review

by Logan Van Winkle
The Lion King poster

The Lion King is the third live-action remake of an animated classic to be released by Disney this year. Actually, let me rephrase. Not just this year. The third live-action remake of an animated classic to be released in the last 4 months. This one, of course, boasts the most impressive cast of these remakes to date. Beyonce, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Eric Andre bring the Pride Lands and their inhabitants to life. Returning to voice King Mufasa is the incomparable James Earl Jones.

“This one… boasts the most impressive cast of these remakes to date.”

You all know the story but I’ll refresh your memory. The Lion King is about a young cub, Simba, whose father. Mufasa (Jones), is murdered by his uncle Scar (Ejiofor). Scar makes Simba believe that he is at fault and advises him to leave the Pride Lands and never return. This is all so that, without Mufasa and Simba in his way, Scar will become the king of the Pride Lands. Not long after leaving the Pride Lands, Simba meets a meerkat and warthog duo, Timon (Eichner) and Pumbaa (Rogen). The three become a trio and, for the next several years, stick together. When one of the other lions from the Pride Lands, Nala (Beyonce), goes looking for help, she runs into her old friend, a grown up Simba (Glover), and asks him to return to dethrone his uncle.

Simba and Scar

The opening of the original Lion King (1994) is like no other. From the sun rising to an assortment of wild animals racing each other to get the best seat in front of Pride Rock to the iconic image of an old, wise baboon presenting a young lion cub to an entire animal kingdom to the final thud of a drum as the title card appears on screen, everyone remembers The Circle of Life and the feelings it stirs. It is an unforgettable opening scene set to a timeless song. The updated version of The Lion King begins in the exact same way. It serves as a powerful reminder that we all have a place in the world. Additionally, it perfectly sets the stage for Simba’s story and, in this case, gives us our first glance at the photo-realistic animals we will be watching for the next two hours.

“It serves as a powerful reminder that we all have a place in the world.”

It was at the moment that the title card flashed on screen, after The Circle of Life, that I let out a sigh of relief. The photo-realistic animals, while not perfect (see: the new Planet of the Apes trilogy), look really good. Had they moved awkwardly or looked disconnected from the environment, the whole film would have been a disaster. Thankfully, the visual effects artists produced a product that allowed me to get sucked in to a story I am already familiar with. There were several moments that I was in awe of the view. That *literally* everything about this film was computer generated is astonishing to me. Even with incredible special effects, parts of the magic that can be found in the 1994 version are lost in translation in this adaptation.

Simba being declared the next Lion King

When it comes to animation, the main attraction is the possibility. Nothing is impossible in animation. Computer generated imagery is still animation but what about when it tries not to be? That’s the biggest problem in The Lion King. In order to set itself apart from the traditionally animated film, we get photo-realistic depictions of an African savanna. As mentioned above, it looks incredible. They wanted the characters to look real and they do. The problem is, being realistic strips the characters away of their expression and the film away of, ironically, its life. The story that was once lively, full of dynamic choreography and colors that pop off screen still exists but with all of those things dramatically lacking. Someone at Disney is convinced that realistic = better. The greys and browns that permeate the characters and locations, though realistic, are dull and take away from the overall spectacle.

“Someone at Disney is convinced that realistic = better. The greys and browns that permeate the characters and locations, though realistic, are dull and take away from the overall spectacle.”

Though life is taken away from some of the imagery, it is given right back by the voice cast. The ensemble is one of the best of the year. Each character is so perfectly cast for their distinct voice and personality. Eichner and Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, especially, are the standouts. They are incredibly talented individually but play off of each other so well here and bring a fresh take on the characters. Glover and Beyonce, unsurprisingly, bring their beautiful voices to the songs that we already know and love. The music not only remains in tact but it is the highlight of the film. I just wish the imagery that accompanies these musical numbers were as full of life as in the original.

The movie does owe a lot to its predecessor. While avoiding the title of “shot-for-shot remake,” it shares a lot in common. It features a lot of the same images, the same songs and music, and even features a lot of the same dialogue. There is nothing different or unique or surprising about it. This isn’t a complaint though. The original is a perfect film. It shows awareness that they didn’t attempt to drastically change it in any way. This version adds a few scenes and makes a few sequences longer in order to pad the runtime. For the most part, though, it is the same story that was told so well in 1994.

“Each character is so perfectly cast for their distinct voice and personality.”

Simba and Mufasa looking at their kingdom

Overall, The Lion King is good. It is fun to see the characters and songs and moments that we watched countless times on VHS updated for 2019. The cast is one of the best ever assembled and the songs will bring tears to your eyes as the score leaves your heart pounding. No matter how hard you may try, though, it is near impossible not to compare this film to its original counterpart.

Shop Lion King!

Though it is a good diversion from the summer heat, when the credits roll, it leads you to wonder if it is worth it. Regardless of the answer that you may come up with, it doesn’t matter. With Aladdin continuing to make money, The Lion King is on track to be a monster hit at the box office, and the first teaser trailer for Mulan having just been released, it is clear that these live-action remakes are here to stay. At least for now. Then, in twenty years, they will be remade again. Except this time, they will be animated remakes of the live action remakes. It’s the circle of life.

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